Keegan refuses to retract remarks about punching Ofsted inspectors

Education secretary says comment was 'light-hearted' and she 'clearly would not be punching anyone, or advocating anyone else do so'

Education secretary says comment was 'light-hearted' and she 'clearly would not be punching anyone, or advocating anyone else do so'

Gillian Keegan

The education secretary said her comments about punching Ofsted inspectors were “off-the-cuff remarks made in a light-hearted manner”, as she swerved a trade union’s call to publicly retract the statement.

Gillian Keegan said she would have “probably punched” disrespectful Ofsted inspectors, during a question-and-answer session at the ASCL school leaders’ union conference in Liverpool last month.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, which represents inspectors, wrote to Keegan on March 11, urging her to retract the “inflammatory language”, which he called “unacceptable in any context, let alone coming from the secretary of state”.

But, in a response sent on Tuesday, seen by Schools Week, Keegan said: “As I think you know, the comments you refer to were off-the-cuff remarks, made in a light-hearted manner in a very particular context, and in the spirit of expressing support for headteachers and teachers in the audience.

“Clearly, I would not be punching anyone, or advocating anyone else do so, and to imply otherwise would be completely wrong.”

Keegan goes on to state she is a “strong advocate and staunch defender of Ofsted, and the important work it does”.

“It is precisely because Ofsted and its inspectors play such an essential role that we must strive to ensure that all inspections are conducted to the highest possible standard. The vast majority are, but not all.”

At the ASCL conference, Keegan recalled feeling “shocked” after hearing from a school leader about the conduct of inspectors during an inspection.

She told the audience: “I heard recently actually from a fantastic school I went into, [and] they told me how their Ofsted experience had gone.

“I was shocked, I was actually shocked. I thought, ‘God, if I’d met these people, I’d have probably punched them.’ They were really rude.”

Sir Martyn Oliver, Ofsted’s chief inspector, was asked about her comments at the time and said he thought “people should act with professionalism, courtesy, empathy and respect on both sides”.

Sir Martin Oliver Ofsted chief inspector

In her letter, Keegan echoed Oliver’s remarks, saying she “strongly” supports “his mission to make sure that Ofsted’s culture and practice always has professionalism, courtesy, empathy and respect at its centre”.

But Penman rebuked Keegan for her response and said she “could have gone further to rebuild trust with inspectors”

“It’s disappointing that the secretary of state has not publicly retracted her comments, as we urged her to do in writing last month,” he said.

“We welcome her acknowledgement that Ofsted inspectors play an essential role and I know our members share her belief that we must strive to ensure that all school inspections are conducted to the highest possible standards.

“However, it’s clear she could have gone further to rebuild trust with inspectors, so that crucial work to improve inspection arrangements could be carried out in a collaborative approach, based on mutual respect.”

Schools Week previously revealed Ofsted data on complaints relating to inspector conduct.

In the 2020-2021 financial year, 39 complaints from 2,585 inspections related to concerns over the conduct of inspections (1.5 per cent). The number of inspections this year was lower than normal amid Covid.

In the 2022-2023 financial year, Ofsted received 171 complaints raising conduct concerns out of a total of 7,615 inspections (2.24 per cent).

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  1. Jo Howell

    I am absolutely no supporter of the Tories but as a member of the audience at the ASCL Conference on that day I agree that this was very much a light hearted remark, not made at all seriously and was the Ed Sec’s attempt to show solidarity with her audience. No one took it seriously but as it was intended. Admittedly I’ll advised and I’m sure she regretted it immediately but it has been completely blown out of proportion.