Ofsted will not carry out a frenzy of inspections to catch up when it returns, chief inspector Amanda Spielman said today.
She also told the Schools and Academies Show that a final decision on the timing of routine inspections resuming has still not been made and will ultimately be education secretary Gavin Williamson's call.
Ms Spielman also said Ofsted would make a "gradual" return to inspection next year.
Coronavirus: Lack of inspectors could hit Ofsted return
Education unions have repeatedly criticised the plan for Ofsted to resume full inspections on the scheduled date of January 2021.
Both the Department for Education and Ofsted have said that this date is under review and Mr Williamson said today that a decision would be announced within weeks.
Ofsted inspections 'should return at the right time'
Ms Spielman declined to say today whether she thought Ofsted inspections should resume in January if Covid levels remained the same, when she was questioned about this by former schools minister David Laws.
She responded that talks were ongoing with the DfE.
Ms Spielman said that it was important for inspections to return in the new year "but at the right time and in the right way".
She added: "We are absolutely not going to be going out to find fault with people about how they have handled their approach to the pandemic. We are not going to be retrospectively judging people for what they did last summer, for example.
"We are also not going to be putting in place a catch-up timetable – a sort of inspection frenzy to try to get back to the cycle of inspections that we were on before March.
"Clearly that wouldn't be feasible. We don't have the staff to do it. That would put unreasonable pressure on the system."
Ms Spielman challenged an assertion by Mr Laws that having inspectors not going into schools because of Covid was something that "probably most people have welcomed".
Ms Spielman responded: "You said 'most people' at the start of your question there. I think you perhaps mean most heads there rather than most people in the country more widely."
She added: "In a moment of immediate crisis, everybody understands suspending the normal systems, assurance and control, but I think a lot of people are rightly worried about allowing that suspension to be too prolonged. So we are working on our plans for going back to inspection in the new year.
"It is important that they restart but it has got to be at the right time and in the right way. Of course, inspections were suspended by government under the Covid emergency legislation. Ultimately, it falls to the secretary of state to decide when and how inspection resumes.
"But we are considering very carefully how routine inspection work can resume safely, sensibly, in a gradual way.
"From the very beginning of the Covid crisis, from the moment it first hit, we have really looked at how can we be intelligent, proportionate and constructive."
She said the design of the autumn school visits now being carried out was aimed at continuing the spirit of Ofsted's new inspection framework with a "professional dialogue that supports schools".
"We are thinking very hard about the context schools are working in. The very different context across the country depending on how they have been affected by the pandemic. That really matters to us," Ms Spielman added.
Ofsted is currently carrying out visits to schools this term that do not result in graded inspection judgements. It has moved these visits online during the national lockdown.
Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of the NAHT school leaders' union, today repeated the call for inspections not to resume in January.
“It is clear that it would not just be inappropriate for inspectors to start visiting schools in January, but it would also be entirely impossible given the nature of the current Ofsted framework," he said.
"School leaders and their staff are working tirelessly to remain open in these hugely challenging circumstances. Keeping schools safe and responding to positive cases has become a full-time job.
"The last thing that is needed at the moment is inspectors going from school to school distracting staff from that vital work, and we know parents do not want to see that either. What we need from the government is a clear message that routine Ofsted inspections will be suspended for the remainder of the academic year.”