An operational note for Her Majesty’s Inspectors and Ofsted Inspectors carrying out inspections of non-association independent schools from January 2021.


On 25 March 2020, Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, wrote to Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector to suspend standard inspections of non-association independent schools (referred to in the remainder of this page as ‘schools’) due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. Since this date, teachers, headteachers and support staff have been stepping up to support pupils, families and the communities they serve. As part of our phased return to routine inspection, we implemented an ‘interim phase’ from autumn 2020.

This operational note sets out the process and range of activities that inspectors will carry out when inspecting schools from January 2021, from notifying a school that an inspection will take place to publishing a report.

In the spring term (starting January 2021), inspectors will not judge schools’ responses to COVID-19 during the spring and summer terms 2020. However, they are likely to ask leaders about the context in which they have been working over the last year.

Additional inspections from January 2021

The cycle of standard inspections will not resume until further notice. During the interim phase, we carried out ‘additional inspections’, which are commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) outside of the normal inspection cycle. We will continue to carry out additional inspections from January 2021.

The DfE is the registration authority for independent schools. There are 4 different types of additional inspection:

  • pre-registration
  • material change
  • emergency
  • progress monitoring

During the summer term 2020, while schools were closed to most children, the DfE commissioned some additional inspections. We carried these out. We also increased our additional inspection activity in autumn in response to the DfE commissioning inspections based on prioritising safety and welfare and on increasing school places where most needed. We will continue to carry out these types of inspections from January 2021 in response to the DfE’s commissions.

The legal context

We are continuing to carry out additional inspections in line with our inspection handbook.

Additional inspections are carried out under the following legal powers:

When carrying out pre-registration, emergency and progress monitoring inspections, inspectors have the power of entry to enter schools under Section 110(2) of the Education and Skills Act 2008.

How DfE will select schools for additional inspections from January 2021

The DfE selects schools and commissions Ofsted to carry out each additional inspection. Working with us, the DfE will prioritise:

  • pre-registration and material change inspections based on the urgency of increasing the number of school places in local areas where they are most needed
  • emergency inspections due to concerns about safeguarding or safety of pupils
  • PMIs to schools that: have previous failings that include issues related to safeguarding, health, safety and welfare of pupils; are subject to regulatory or enforcement actions or tribunal/legal proceedings; or we were not commissioned to inspect during the autumn term

Checking the independent school standards from January 2021

Additional inspections focus on checking whether the school meets (or, for pre-registration and material change inspections, is likely to meet) the independent school standards (‘the standards’).

This will continue from January 2021 and will be carried out on the basis of the detail within the DfE’s commission.

In all additional inspections, inspectors may determine whether a school meets (or is likely to meet) any or all of parts 1 to 8 of the standards.

Before the inspection

Notifying the school of an inspection

Under normal circumstances, we carry out PMIs and emergency inspections without notice. From January 2021, however, the lead inspector will telephone the school to announce these types of inspection up to 30 minutes before they arrive at the school. They will ask to speak to the headteacher or the most senior member of staff available. The purpose of the notification call will be to discuss practical arrangements for the inspection, making sure that inspectors are aware of the school’s arrangements for having visitors on site.

For pre-registration and material change inspections, the lead inspector will telephone the school to announce the inspection 2 days before it is due to start, in line with arrangements as set out in our inspection handbook.

Requests for deferral

We will decide whether a deferral request should be granted in accordance with our deferral policy.

The lead inspector will liaise with the school to ensure that, wherever possible, the inspection can go ahead. We are working closely with the DfE and in line with current government guidelines. Inspectors will take all reasonable steps to work within the school’s COVID-19 systems and processes, commensurate with the government guidelines.

We will always consult with the DfE before granting a deferral of inspection of an independent school.

Other considerations

Inspectors will prepare for inspections and carry out all other pre-inspection activity as set out in our inspection handbook.

During the inspection

Making judgements

Inspectors will gather and record evidence as set out in our inspection handbook. All inspections will result in a judgement of the extent to which the relevant standards have been (or are likely to be) met. In exceptional circumstances where it may not be possible for inspectors to gather sufficient evidence to make a secure judgement on whether a standard is being met, they will state this in the inspection report. They will use the ‘insufficient evidence’ options, as set out in paragraph 350 of our inspection handbook.

When an inspector judges part 1 to be unmet, they will record the unmet judgement and provide contextual information about their findings. This will be a concise, narrative account of the evidence seen and will explain whether evidence of non-compliance may be due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The purpose of the narrative is to provide the DfE with additional information that may assist it in deciding next steps.

Inspectors will not make judgements on a school’s application of social distancing or other COVID-19 measures. However, inspectors will consider health and safety within the school environment, including whether the school is giving proper consideration to the DfE’s guidance on safe reopening. If inspectors are concerned about children’s safety, they will follow the normal safeguarding procedures.

Checking the early years foundation stage requirements

In independent schools that include early years settings, inspectors report on whether the requirements of the early years foundation stage (EYFS) are met. If a school is relying on any disapplication/modification of EYFS requirements, in line with the DfE’s disapplication guidance, inspectors will take into account whether a school is making reasonable endeavours to meet these requirements. This will inform their judgement on whether the overall quality of education standards are met.

After the inspection

Report to the school

Within 18 working days of the end of the inspection, we will write to the school, setting out in a draft report what inspectors found. The draft report will have been quality assured. We may share the draft report or findings with other public bodies, including the DfE, where we consider it necessary.

The school will have 5 working days to comment on the draft report, inspection process and findings. We will consider all comments and we will respond to them when we share the final report with the school within 30 working days of the end of the inspection.

If the school wishes to submit a formal complaint, it will have until the end of the fifth working day after receiving the final report to do so.

The report will normally be published on our reports website within 38 working days of the end of the inspection. We will delay the publication of the report if a formal complaint is being determined.

We will send a final copy of the report to the DfE before publication. Proprietors are expected to ensure that a copy of the report is published on the school’s website (when required) and provided to all parents within 5 working days of receipt.

Post-inspection surveys

Following the inspection, we will ask schools for feedback about the process through a survey. We provide details about how schools can share their views when we send the final report.

Quality assurance

We will monitor the quality of the inspections through a range of formal processes. We may visit some schools or remotely monitor inspection evidence to quality assure the inspection. We will quality assure evidence bases and reports.

The evidence base

The evidence base for the inspection will be retained in line with Ofsted’s retention and disposal policy. This is normally for 6 years from when the report is published. We may decide that retaining it for longer is warranted for research purposes or if the DfE is carrying out regulatory enforcement action.

Conduct and complaints

Inspectors must uphold the highest professional standards in their work and treat everyone they encounter during inspections fairly and with respect and sensitivity.

Inspectors must at all times adhere to the code of conduct for inspections. Any concerns and complaints during the inspection will be handled in line with Ofsted’s complaints policy.

Privacy notice

During an inspection, inspectors may collect information about staff and pupils by talking to them and by looking at documents and other recorded information. We will use this information to prepare the report and as set out in our schools privacy notice.

Published 7 December 2020 Contents