Routine school inspections have been put on ice once again amid growing concern over Covid-19 and a potential infections surge fuelled by the Omicron variant.

The move follows an announcement in September that checks would resume after they were paused in March last year during the pandemic’s early stages.

Gayle Gorman, HM Chief Inspector and Chief Executive of standards body Education Scotland (ES), said the decision had been reached in view of ongoing challenges faced by schools and other settings.

She added that, from mid-February and if conditions allow, her staff would carry out “recovery visits” to support learning establishments. However, inspectors will not report on specific quality indicators or give grades.

Recent data and reports indicate that classrooms, particularly those in the primary sector, continue to be hit by high rates of Covid-related absence among staff and pupils.

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Ms Gorman said: “I am acutely aware of the pressures schools remain under currently, and have been engaging with school leaders and others and listening to the day to day experiences they are dealing with. It is with this understanding of the daily challenges that we make this announcement.

“After the February mid-term break, HM Inspectors will carry out ‘recovery visits’ to a selection of early learning and childcare settings and schools.

“During visits we will want to hear from educators about how they are addressing the impact of Covid-19. We want to learn about what is working well, as well as the ongoing challenges schools are dealing with. We will gather evidence of the range and quality of learning children are experiencing and the school’s approaches to safeguarding.

“We will continue to keep our plans under review to changing circumstances linked to the pandemic that staff and learners may face.”

HeraldScotland: Gayle Gorman, HM Chief Inspector and Education Scotland Chief Executive.Gayle Gorman, HM Chief Inspector and Education Scotland Chief Executive.

Janie McManus, ES Strategic Director of Scrutiny, added: “There is no doubt the pandemic has brought many challenges to the education sector and we do not wish to add to the pressure those working in education are facing in supporting children and young people.

“Our planned recovery visits will provide an opportunity for us to explore the range and quality of learning children and young people are experiencing, and the work being done to meet children’s and young people’s learning needs and support their wellbeing during this challenging time.”

The decision to pause routine inspections has been welcomed by union leaders.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary at the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), said: “The Covid pandemic has had, and continues to have, a profound impact on all aspects of school life and it is entirely appropriate that Education Scotland and HM inspectors should focus their efforts in assisting schools in overcoming the huge challenges that our education system continues to face.

“Teachers in our schools have worked flat-out throughout the pandemic to seek to deliver a high-quality educational experience for young people. Teachers are under huge pressure, and the prospect of a return to scrutiny inspections in the New Year was a source of considerable concern amongst our members.

“The EIS raised these concerns directly with Education Scotland on several occasions, and it is welcome that these concerns have now been listened to.”

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He added: “Today’s announcement is both a sensible and practical decision, which will be welcomed by Scotland’s teachers.

"It will ensure that schools and school staff can continue to concentrate on their most important priority, which is to ensure the best possible educational experience for our young people despite the continuing challenge of the Covid pandemic.

“Our hope is that information gathered during ‘recovery’ visits by inspectors will result in any requisite additional support and resources being delivered quickly to schools and early learning & childcare settings to support ongoing education recovery.”

However, the announcement has been criticised by Oliver Mundell, Scottish Conservative Shadow Education Secretary.

He said: “There are failures on both sides here, with Education Scotland not resuming inspections, and the SNP Government turning a blind eye to it. Some schools haven’t been inspected in over a decade now, which represents a dereliction of duty from Education Scotland. But parents will be equally appalled that the SNP Government has allowed this lack of scrutiny to continue.

“Our schools need to recover from the pandemic but, without regular inspections, problems in schools could go undetected, meaning teachers and pupils suffer.”