Good planning is key, says Richard Moore, especially for off-the-job inspections

An article in FE Week last week, “Frustration builds as Ofsted refuses to inspect paused providers”, got me thinking about how feasible a remote inspection might be in reality.

I have worked remotely with a number of providers since lockdown, carrying out activities that would normally be part of a full Ofsted inspection – although, I should stress, they have not been “mock inspections” per se.

I also worked before lockdown with the provider featured last week and empathise with the financial concerns of new providers over not being able to recruit new learners beyond the six to 12-month window in which the follow-up full inspection should take place. I also recognise the uncertainty this causes for staff who, in most cases, will have been working hard to get their provision up to that magical “requires improvement” grade they need at their next inspection. This gives them the green light to start recruiting apprentices again.

Let’s look at this objectively. Is it possible to do a full inspection remotely? In my view it is. There will be challenges, but no more so than for providers since the lockdown. They have had to adapt their practice, so why shouldn’t Ofsted – a valid point made by the managing director of one of the providers affected.

The biggest sticking point undoubtedly will be the inspection of off-the-job training. However, with good planning, it is perfectly possible to observe this remotely, particularly if it is one-to-one in the workplace.

And now that learners are allowed back into training centres, albeit with a number of caveats, this could easily be set up for group workshop sessions. Judgments about online learning, now so prevalent, can easily be made by talking to learners, viewing it and talking to managers about the content and sequencing (curriculum intent). And, lest we forget, inspectors often see no off-the job training at all on a full inspection anyway, as its delivery doesn’t coincide with the dates of the inspection, but still have to make judgments about its quality.

Progress reviews can be observed remotely – many providers record them for their own evidence-gathering. This can be backed up, or “triangulated” to use Ofsted parlance, by looking at online copies of completed reviews. Again, Ofsted inspectors often don’t get the chance to see any live reviews during an inspection if they don’t take place on the days they are there.

Telephone interviews with learners and employers are easy to set up: many inspections already feature inspectors telephoning around both parties, having preselected who they would like to talk to to avoid any cherry-picking by the provider. Indeed, on many inspections, Ofsted inspectors do this ringing around from the comfort of their own homes. It’s quiet, they can concentrate, it’s time-efficient and saves on travel and accommodation. A good example of Ofsted already having changed its inspection practice for good reasons.

Inspectors can look at assessed work online with members of staff remotely to judge assessment practice – what is known as “joint work scrutiny” – and can easily interview senior leaders, governors and staff about various aspects of leadership and management, including governance and safeguarding, as well as about curriculum intent. Other paperwork can be viewed online as required.

And if, at the end of all that, Ofsted wants any additional reassurance that inspectors have “got it right”, it could always instigate a one-day follow-up onsite visit, say, six months after the remote inspection. This could involve one inspector evaluating some key lines of enquiry, either specific to that provider or generic to all as per the three themes for the original short monitoring visit that led to the “paused inspection” in the first place.