By John-Paul Holden

Scotland's schools watchdog has come under fire for keeping inspections on hold as campuses recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

In a new update on the implementation of its corporate plan for 2019-2022, Education Scotland says its "Early Learning and Childcare and School Inspection" programme is paused so inspectors can support the system "in different ways".

Staff are working on "a range of national supports such as webinars and other professional learning activities", the agency said.

Its update document also states that some targeted checks will be undertaken, while a "scrutiny plan" outlining the range of activity to be carried out when the programme resumes will also be published.

But it offers no clear indication of timescales and comes amid persistent concern over the gap between quality controls at schools.

Earlier this year it emerged that more than 600 primaries north of the Border had not been inspected for a decade or more. One had not been visited for 16 years.

Critics have attacked the watchdog's decision.

Scottish Labour's education spokesman Iain Gray said: “Education Scotland had said they were planning on expanding the inspection regime for schools as it was clearly far below par and they cannot be allowed to completely abandon those plans and blame the pandemic.

"If anything we need even more assurance that schools are getting all that they need to meet expected standards given the new climate they are operating in and with an ever widening attainment gap.”

Jo Bisset, organiser for UsForThem Scotland, the parents campaign group, said inspections in schools had "never been more vital".

“We’ve had reports from right across the UK of children being forced to spend break-times outside in adverse weather, being denied access to the toilet and stopped from getting drinking water," she added.

“These are the things an inspection team could be addressing.

“Covid-19 should not be used as an excuse to halt these crucial inspections.”

However, the criticisms have been rejected by the EIS, Scotland's largest teaching union.

General Secretary Larry Flanagan said: “The clear focus for everyone within the education sector is supporting education recovery for young people so at the current time. It is entirely appropriate that inspections are suspended.

"The EIS rejects any suggestion that the suspension of inspections creates any lack of robustness in schools, indeed such language reveals a complete lack of understanding of the critical work which schools are doing to support pupil well-being. Despite the difficult current circumstances, teachers continue to work extremely hard to ensure that young people are receiving quality support for their education.”

Jamie Greene, education spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, said it was "perfectly understandable" that checks had been on hold during the pandemic. But he described the "lack of inspections in our school buildings" as "part of a worrying trend in recent years".

“When it is possible to do so, a clear timetable must be laid out that will see programmes of inspection started up again to give parents, staff and pupils the confidence that their schools will be properly inspected in the years to come,” he added.

Scottish Greens education spokesman Ross Greer said: “The school inspections system didn’t work before, and it certainly wouldn’t work during the pandemic... When inspections do resume, they should be the kind of peer-to-peer inspections between teachers and schools which work successfully elsewhere, not the top-down approach taken here by a central inspectorate, one which heaps stress on already overworked teachers without any clear evidence that it improves the quality of education.”

Beatrice Wishart, educations spokeswoman for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said it made sense to reduce the burden on schools until the pandemic has passed. But she added: "With some schools already going years without an inspection, perhaps this would be the moment to consider whether the present inspection regime is fit for purpose."

An Education Scotland spokeswoman said the watchdog took the decision to pause inspection activity in March, adding: "This enabled teachers and practitioners to concentrate, both on the continuation of learning throughout Term Four and the reopening of schools after summer. It enabled Education Scotland to provide the bespoke help and support required.

“We are continuing to work flexibly and collaboratively with the profession to provide a package of support which aims to support the education system recover while at the same time relieving pressure on the education system at this time. Our focus is always on improvement. The continued pause of inspections is enabling our team of HM Inspectors to support the system in different ways. HM Inspectors are working on a range of national supports such as webinars and other professional learning activities. They are working collectively with other Education Scotland teams to provide localised support. HM Inspectors will undertake targeted and risk based inspections as required.

“Covid-19 presents early learning and childcare settings and schools with previously uncharted challenges, and it is vitally important staff working in education can concentrate on providing support to their pupils and colleagues. We have listened to the profession and our focus will be to fully support the education system, working alongside local authorities, schools and individual practitioners to support recovery, quality and improvement in Scottish education. Inspections will resume only when it is safe and appropriate to do so ”