Investigate teacher suicides, experts tell Health and Safety watchdog

Writing in the BMJ, academics also call for inquiry by MPs into impact of Ofsted on teaching staff

Writing in the BMJ, academics also call for inquiry by MPs into impact of Ofsted on teaching staff

22 May 2023, 16:47

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Experts have called for the HSE to conduct an immediate probe into work-related stress and mental health in the education sector

The UK’s health and safety watchdog should investigate teacher suicides and launch an “immediate” inquiry into work-related stress in the education sector, experts have said.

An article in medical research journal the BMJ also calls for MPs on the education select committee to conduct a separate probe of Ofsted’s impact on the welfare of teaching staff.

Its authors, Professors Sarah Waters and Martin Mckee, argued teachers are a group that “faces immense pressure at work”, citing responses from The Teacher Wellbeing Index which found 75 per cent of education staff were stressed in 2022.

“Although the high level of mental health problems has many causes, concerns about Ofsted clearly play a significant part,” they wrote.

The article, published yesterday, follows the recent outpouring of anger from the sector over the death of Reading headteacher Ruth Perry.

Perry’s family said she took her own life in January before the publication of an inspection report downgrading Caversham Primary School from ‘outstanding’ to ‘inadequate’.

An inquest to establish the facts around the causes and circumstances of her death opened in January, while a full hearing date has not yet been set.

But the experts have called on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to investigate work-related suicides.

Currently, such cases cannot be reported to the watchdog under its existing regulations.

“Whenever events at someone’s work seem to be linked to their suicide, it is reasonable to expect that everyone involved will want to find out what happened and how a similar event can be prevented from happening again,” the BMJ report stated.

“Yet, even though the link between adverse working conditions and suicide is well established, regulations requiring reporting of work related deaths to the Health and Safety Executive in Great Britain specifically exclude suicides.”

The authors pointed to other countries where the opposite is true. “In France, for example, if there is even a suggestion of a link between suicide and working conditions, the burden of proof falls on the employer to show otherwise.”

Scant evidence Ofsted has ‘reflected’ on safeguarding duties

McKee, a professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, is the current president of the British Medical Association, although the article notes that he “writes in a personal capacity”.

Waters, a professor of French studies with an expertise in suicide and labour, is a member of Hazards – which previously conducted research into the number of coroners’ reports on the deaths of teachers in which stress caused by Ofsted was cited.

It found 10 such cases over the past 25 years.

Among the evidence for concerns about Ofsted referenced by the pair is a recent YouGov finding that 90 per cent of teachers had a negative opinion of the inspector, including 67 per cent who had a ‘very unfavourable’ view.

They demanded that Ofsted “publicly accept that it has a duty care to teachers”, adding that a failure to uphold it amounted “to negligence”.

“While Ofsted inspections place great emphasis on safeguarding by school staff, we have struggled to find evidence that Ofsted has reflected in detail on its own safeguarding responsibilities.”

It follows calls from all four education unions for Ofsted reforms.

NAHT and the NEU have asked members who work part-time as inspectors to consider not doing so, although it is understood that few have so far answered the call.

The NAHT has also threatened a judicial review over the schools watchdog’s refusal to pause inspections in the wake of Perry’s death.

Action needed to tackle mental health impact of Ofsted

“While the almost complete loss of confidence in Ofsted is a matter for those in the education sector to address, the health community has a duty to demand action to tackle the burden of mental ill health associated with the way it operates. We argue that three bodies need to act now,” wrote McKee and Waters.

A spokesperson for HSE said that a coroner could refer a case to the body “if they consider there is an ongoing risk to others”.

They added: “Our thoughts are with everyone who knew Ruth Perry.”

At the Schools & Academies Show last week, Ofsted’s national director for education sought to address current concerns about its practices.

Measures it was taking to quell anxieties in the sector included giving schools “more of an idea” about when inspectors may visit, as well as improving its much-lambasted complaints process.

In response to the BMJ article, a spokesperson for Ofsted said: “Our inspectors are all former or current school leaders themselves, so they understand how it feels to be inspected.

“We inspect first and foremost in the interests of children, but we aim for all our inspections to be carried out professionally and sensitively, with careful regard to their impact on school staff.” 

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. Not only suicides but also suicidal attempts and ideation should also be reported. Don’t forget the statistics of nearly 75% of men actually go through with committing suicide compared to only 20% of women. Depression and anxiety need to be addressed to.