Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman on a challenging year for education, and how the department will get back to business as usual in 2021

2020 was a year unlike any other, with the coronavirus pandemic upending the work of government and changing how we live our daily lives. Senior figures from across the civil service tell us how the unprecedented 12 months affected them, and look ahead to 2021

By Civil Service World

14 Dec 2020


What are you proudest of your department or agency achieving in 2020?

Along with schools, apprenticeship providers, nurseries and childminders, colleges, children’s homes and foster carers we were hit like a ton of bricks with massive changes to make and little time to do it as we tried to make sense of the situation and work quickly to make things as safe as we could for everybody.

I’m very proud of my staff, who stepped up in many ways. We had a lot of response to our call for volunteers to be deployed to other departments, and more than 300 of us were deployed to the DfE, DHSC, Ofqual, DWP and the NHS. More than 250 staff went to assist local authorities, often in supporting vulnerable children.  We helped staff children’s homes and some inspectors worked on the Star Line, helping parents who were home-educating. Some of our staff volunteered to be emergency foster carers.

We put a pause on routine inspections of schools, further education, early years and social care providers. We continued to carry out inspections where concerns about safeguarding were raised to make sure children were not in harm’s way. As soon as we could, we got back to registration visits as access to reliable, safe childcare is so valuable in allowing parents to work without worrying ­– or trying to work and look after children at the same time.

What was the hardest part of being a leader in 2020?

I think that education and social care leaders have had a particularly difficult year. The responsibility of looking after children and young people whose routine and support networks of friends, teachers and extended family has had to change overnight is huge. Everyone has had to plan for and make decisions about things that are new to them; at first, nobody had anything to base decisions on and were feeling their way. It was like being in the first months of a new job; but with no handover, no training and everyone else being brand new, too!

People have realised it’s much easier to turn something off than to turn it back on again.

What are the main challenges facing your organisation in the coming year?

We will be resuming our normal role, which has its own challenges. People have realised it’s much easier to turn something off than to turn it back on again. We do, however, have the capacity to plan well and to get right. But so much of what we’ve seen over the last year has shown us again how much parents, especially, value what we do.

People will have to be more creative about celebrating this year. How will you make the festive period on Zoom special?

We’ll have our usual Christmas quiz all-staff webinar which, trust me, is more fun than it sounds. We’re encouraging people to have time off over the holidays and a proper rest, away from screens!

At home, we're going to make use of the Christmas flexibilities and have rented a Lake District cottage where we can have my 80-something parents down from Glasgow where they live, for those few days we are permitted. After the past year, that definitely feels like Christmas cheer.

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