Ofsted inspectors were not given written guidance on modifying inspections where headteachers are under “high levels of stress”, a senior official from the watchdog has admitted during an inquest into Ruth Perry’s death.
However Chris Russell, national director for education, said minimising the pressure on staff during the process was “a core value” of how it trains inspectors.
But he did add that responsibility of the welfare of headteachers as maintained schools belonged with governors and the council.
Berkshire Coroners’ Office in Reading heard that Perry became “tearful” and “looked like she was in pain” during meetings with an inspector when her school, Caversham Primary School, was inspected last November.
Opening the high-profile inquest into the circumstances surrounding the headteacher’s death today, senior coroner Heidi Connor noted that Ofsted’s code of conduct sets out that inspectors will “take all reasonable steps to prevent undue anxiety and to minimise stress” during inspection.
Russell said it was a “core value” of how it trained inspectors, adding that there was an “emphasis on working flexibly”.
“You’re looking to make that relationship and to work with the headteacher right from the point of setting that inspection up,” he told the inquest.
If someone was becoming stressed, “in a meeting for example”, said Russell, Ofsted’s guidance was to “modify” the process, such as by rescheduling the meeting.
Inspectors are also encouraged to ring Ofsted’s ‘duty desk’ to speak with an experienced HMI if they have questions about the inspection process.
But James Rowbottom, representing Perry’s family, asked Russell to clarify if there was a “policy in place” that gave inspectors guidance as to how to modify or slow down an inspection if a head was “obviously under high levels of stress”.
Russell admitted that he was “not aware that we have a written policy that would specify that”.
Coroner calls out ‘insensitive’ comments from Ofsted
He also told the courtroom that responsibility for headteacher’s welfare during an inspection of a maintained school lay with the local authority and governing body.
“Our responsibility is to work with the headteacher and school to make sure the inspection runs smoothly and anxieties are reduced within the inspection process,” said Russell.
His comments followed a warning from Connor to representatives for interested parties in the case not to make position statements during the hearings, noting “surprisingly insensitive public comments” from senior figures at Ofsted “just a few short days” before the inquest began.
The inquest also heard from Alan Derry, lead inspector during last year’s inspection at Perry’s school.
The headteacher’s family previously stated that the 53-year-old took her own life in January before the publication of a report penned by the watchdog rating the school ‘inadequate’.
Perry ‘very confident’ at outset of inspection
He told the court that Perry had been “very professional, she was very clear, she was very confident” during a pre-inspection phone call and had presented “the school and the work it does very well”.
Derry said he produced an ‘aide memoire’ to share with the other two inspectors on the team so that they were aware “how a school could remain outstanding”.
“It could be likely given the information that I’d already collected,” he said.
But safeguarding concerns were picked up on day one of the two day inspection, and Derry said the headteacher became “tearful” during a meeting to discuss the issues.
He then offered to pause when he “didn’t think she was able to carry on with the meeting”.
Derry’s demeanour during another meeting was described as “very mocking and unpleasant” by the school’s then deputy headteacher in a witness statement.
He told the court: “I’m very disappointed that was…[the] view of me as an inspector, as a person.
“I don’t recognise that as how the meeting was.”
But when later asked by Connor if he would alter his behaviour if a head became upset during a future inspection, he added: “I’d hope so, knowing what I now know happened.
“I can’t even imagine what the family must…have been through. I thought I was self-aware before but I have heard and I’ve read the points of view of others that were in meetings with me,”
In a final feedback session, Perry “looked like she was in pain” said the inspector.
“I think [she] was at that point saying things about [how] she felt she couldn’t show her face again,” he added.
Derry also told the court that it was a “possibility” that safeguarding issues picked up during the inspection could be resolved within 30 working days “given the capacity of the school to address them”.
The inquest is scheduled to run over six days.
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