Heads say ‘enough is enough’ in Ofsted’s week of reckoning

Spielman rebuffs inspection pause calls following death of Ruth Perry, but wants to ‘defuse anxiety’

Spielman rebuffs inspection pause calls following death of Ruth Perry, but wants to ‘defuse anxiety’

24 Mar 2023, 5:00

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Flora Cooper
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Headteacher Lisa Telling can remember her daughter asking her to promise she would not hurt herself when they were discussing a recent Ofsted inspection.

“I shouldn’t be saying to my daughter, ‘if this goes wrong we might have to move house’,” says the executive head of Katesgrove and Southcote Primary Schools in Reading. “We shouldn’t have to do that to our families.”

Her experience is one of many shared by headteachers who feel crushed by the accountability system.

But widespread discontent this week exploded into an outpouring of anger following reports of the death of Reading headteacher Ruth Perry.

Her family say she took her own life in January before the publication of an inspection report at Caversham Primary School that downgraded her school from ‘outstanding’ to ‘inadequate’. They blame pressure from the Ofsted process for her death.

An inquest has not yet been held.

‘Her death should not be in vain’

But leaders, including Telling, have pledged to wear black armbands, to display pictures of Perry and to hold a minute’s silence during inspections.

“We want our colleague to be remembered and for us to honour her. We feel quite passionately that her death should not be in vain,” says Telling, whose two schools are in the same area.

A photograph of Ruth Perry attached to the fence outside John Rankin School
A photograph of Ruth Perry at John Rankin School

On Tuesday, Flora Cooper (pictured top), executive headteacher at John Rankin Infant and Nursery School, also in Berkshire, pledged to refuse entry to an Ofsted inspector.

She told Schools Week: “I could lose my job but I feel like if I don’t stand up for every child, every member of staff, every school leader, the system will never change.” Obstructing an inspection is a criminal offence with a fine of up to £2,500.

After talks with the watchdog and council, the inspection went ahead – but staff staged a protest outside the school and wore black armbands.

Police were present as inspectors arrived.

Schools take action

Leaders in the Reading Primary Heads Association, which Telling is part of, have pledged to remove non-statutory references to the watchdog from their schools’ websites.

Claire Lowe, the chief executive of the Inspire Learning Partnership in Hampshire, said in an open letter to Ofsted that leaders would be “discussing some actions” during inspections – including displaying pictures of Perry.

NEU deputy general secretary Niamh Sweeney hands in a petition which has been signed by 45000 people

Rebecca Leek, the executive director of Suffolk Primary Headteachers’ Association, has suggested its schools say a prayer for “Perry’s family and school community” while inspectors are present.

“Every headteacher has a story of something that Ofsted inspectors have said or done, or inconsistencies [in reports],” she says.

“It feels safer now to speak out because other voices are already saying it.”

A petition calling for an inquiry into Caversham’s Ofsted inspection now has more than 196,000 signatures.

Three unions – the leaders’ unions NAHT and ASCL, and the National Education Union – have called for Ofsted to temporarily pause inspections and reiterated calls for wider reforms to the system.

Spielman rebuffs calls for inspections pause

After refusing to comment on the case for most of the week, Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector, said today it would “not be right to say too much” before the inquest, but added: “The news of Ruth’s death was met with great sadness at Ofsted.”

She said it was “unquestionably a difficult time to be a headteacher” and knew that inspections could be “challenging”. But Ofsted “always aims to carry them out with sensitivity as well as professionalism”.

Amanda Spielman
Amanda Spielman

She rebuffed calls for a pause. “I don’t believe that stopping or preventing inspections would be in children’s best interests.

“Our aim is to raise standards, so that all children get a great education. It is an aim we share with every teacher in every school.”

While the debate about grades was a “legitimate one”, any change to the current system “would have to meet the needs both of parents and of the government”.

Unions dismissed her comments as “warm words”, with Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the NAHT, saying leaders wanted “tangible actions … to reduce the intolerable pressure” of inspections.

‘Lack of Ofsted response is failure of leadership’

There appears to be a different tone behind the scenes.

Spielman said Ofsted would “be looking at whether there are further ways that we can defuse the anxiety that we know often builds up around inspection”, says a leaked message to HMIs seen by Schools Week.

It has also emerged that following Perry’s death in January, “sensitivities” prompted the watchdog to pause inspections in Reading.

A retired HMI said they had “never heard” of such an action elsewhere.

But a serving inspector, who also wanted to remain anonymous, described Ofsted’s prior lack of response as “a failure of leadership”.

When the inspectorate published Caversham’s report on Tuesday, it took out a line included in the version published on the school’s website.

“There has been a change of leadership at the school following the death of the headteacher who was in post at the time of the inspection”, it read.

It is understood the line was removed after Ofsted ‘reflected on the sensitivities’.

“They’ve created a vacuum and that has simply meant that the alternative voices – for good or for ill – have filled space,” the serving inspector said.

Detangle reform from ‘tragic incident’

Calls for reform on the back of Perry’s death have caused some unease. Guidance from The Samaritans says “most of the time there is no single event or factor that leads someone to take their own life” and such cases are “extremely complex”.

Dame Alison Peacock, the chief executive of the Chartered College of Teaching, said: “Anybody who works in a school has been affected by this story, so I think all the responses are understandable.

Dame Alison Peacock
Dame Alison Peacock

“But we should try to decouple what’s happened in this very tragic incident with overall reform.”

Caroline Derbyshire, the chair of the Headteachers’ Roundtable, which has renewed calls to pause Ofsted, said: “We all know of other cases in the past – where people have been made desperate by an outcome. This is not an isolated incident.

“It’s not a platform upon which people are jumping, it’s merely that [the family has] actually come out and said there is a link and that’s what’s different about it.”

‘It’s very personal for headteachers’

Sinéad Mc Brearty, the chief executive of the wellbeing charity Education Support, said Perry’s death had “galvanised headteachers. It’s very personal for headteachers when one of their tribe has passed away in such tragic circumstances.”

The charity’s 2022 teacher wellbeing index showed 84 per cent of school leaders said they were stressed.

But it is not just school leaders who are disillusioned. A Teacher Tapp survey this month asked respondents on a scale of 1-9 (1 is the most negative) how they felt about Ofsted.

Sixty-one per cent responded between 1-3. This compared with 38 per cent in March 2018 and June 2019.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said Ofsted had a “crucial role” to play in upholding standards.

“It provides independent, up-to-date evaluations on the quality of education, safeguarding, and leadership that parents greatly rely on to give them confidence in choosing the right school for their child.”

Samaritans are available 365 days a year. You can reach them on free call number 116 123, email them at jo@samaritans.org or visit www.samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.

Charity Education Support runs a confidential helpline for education staff and teachers – call 08000 562 561. 

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  1. Phil Hatton

    It is a very sad story for both a family and their friends and the whole school family of teachers and pupils. One of the problems with inspection in the schools sector is that feedback on findings does not seem to focus on how to put things right. What was wrong in the school, and stopped it from being good overall, was down to safeguarding factors that could be put right very quickly, certainly before publication (inspectors in the Adult Learning Inspectorate were particularly good at including improvement advice in their inspection feedback, rather than simply acting as judges). Anyone inspected tends to focus on the negatives that they hear, rather than the numerous positives that learners benefit from. It would be a retrograde step to remove grades as parents use them to help in their choices for their children (banners outside schools saying we are good or outstanding give everyone a boost). Teachers should have nothing to fear from inspection if they have a well organised school and teachers who are good at teaching. What happens in classrooms in schools, colleges and training providers has to have an external view or the quality of education available will suffer. As a parent my children had some very poor experiences in their ‘outstanding’ secondary schools which were not adequately dealt with by senior teachers and left aspiring and optimistic young teachers downhearted (the head of English refusing to mark for punctuation and spelling while the other teacher of the A level English class did).

    What is clear is that something needs to change in why Ofsted is feared by so many in schools without abandoning an external quality eye. The right leader in both a school and inspectorate is essential. The best chief inspectors I worked with were not in Ofsted, but unlike Ofsted they actually understood inspection and how it could be carried out to improve things. Having someone with political connections to get the top job has not worked in the past and is unlikely to in the future. The next Chief HMI appointment is absolutely crucial in getting the improvement role right and would have been even if this tragic death had not occurred.

  2. Chris Beddoes

    Obviously this is a very emotive subject but unfortunately to maintain parental confidence in our schools there has to be some form of accountability.
    We have had some really sad experiences with our local primary school towards a mixed race foster child, deputy head caught lying, no obvious leadership from heads, whitewash of responsibilities and general lack of accountability.
    There is definitely a feeling of untouchability around schools as this isn’t the first school our children have had issues with.
    Of course we understand that not all schools react this way but without some form of inspection for accountability, parents will continue to have little respect for the people in charge of their children.

  3. John Davies

    The problem with OFSTED is that they all profess to be experts.
    I keep saying that all these people should be appointed for a limited time and then back to the classroom. We are already seeing that the inspectors want to keep inspecting and the last thing they want to do is teach a class of 30 + children.