Ofsted chief told of ousted heads’ gagging clause ordeals

Sister of Ruth Perry says use of non-disclosure agreements after bad Ofsteds could be stopping heads raising further system issues

Sister of Ruth Perry says use of non-disclosure agreements after bad Ofsteds could be stopping heads raising further system issues


The practice of gagging headteachers who are ousted after bad Ofsted reports could be “papering over wide cracks in the system”, Ruth Perry’s sister has warned, as analysis reveals that three in five leaders had moved on a year after an ‘inadequate’ judgment.

The use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) was raised with Sir Martyn Oliver, Ofsted’s chief inspector, at a meeting convened by Perry’s sister Julia Waters this week.

Oliver is trying to repair the watchdog’s reputation after a coroner concluded that an Ofsted inspection contributed to the Caversham Primary School head’s suicide in January last year.

But others are now demanding a culture change in what happens after ‘inadequate’ grades are issued.

Sir Martyn Oliver

‘Shame and humiliation’

Analysis shows that 61 per cent of headteachers of schools rated ‘inadequate’ in 2021-22 were no longer in the position 12 months later.

In contrast, only 23 per cent of ‘outstanding’ schools, 17 per cent of ‘good’ schools and 23 per cent of ‘requires improvement’ schools had different heads one year on.

But irrespective of whether the decision to sack a headteacher was right, some ousted heads who spoke to Schools Week on condition of anonymity were concerned at the practice of signing NDAs as part of their departure.

One was driven to the brink of suicide and now works as a teacher, another still feels “shame and humiliation”, while a third said being hounded from the school “shattered” his confidence and ended his nearly 30-year teaching career.

According to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) an NDA, sometimes known as a confidentiality clause, can be included in settlement agreements after a “dispute which results in someone leaving a job to keep details confidential”.

NDAs can be used to keep the sum of money involved in a settlement agreement – and some or all of its terms and surrounding circumstances – confidential.

Last summer, Schools Week sent freedom of information requests to the 30 largest multi-academy trusts in England, asking how many staff had signed NDAs in recent years. Of the 13 trusts that responded, 190 such agreements were brokered between 2018 and July 2023. Pre-2018, nine trusts said that 393 NDAs had been signed.

A headteacher at a local authority-maintained school in the North East said he was forced out after an “awful inspection” in 2016 saw the school graded ‘requires improvement’.

“The support from the local authority from that moment was absolutely non-existent,” he said.

Soon after, he claimed he was blocked from attending a meeting by the chair of governors while they discussed his future at the school. The next day, he decided to kill himself, although a friend intervened and saved his life.

‘Situation is iniquitous’ 

Ruth Perry
Ruth Perry

“Since the death of Ruth Perry, there is no question this is an important story to tell. The current situation is absolutely iniquitous,” the former headteacher said.

The ASCL helped to negotiate the terms of his departure. He was “broken emotionally and mentally” and felt he “no choice” but to sign the NDA. 

Another headteacher said Ofsted had downgraded his school to ‘inadequate’ within the past five years. He claimed this led to governors ousting him, with an NDA signed, and alleges his union, the ASCL, was “almost complicit”, as it advised him to sign it.

“If this was called out earlier, then maybe this practice wouldn’t be so commonplace,” he said. 

Before attending a meeting with the school’s chair of governors, he called his union and explained the situation. They allegedly told him that he would “be put onto gardening leave. ‘You won’t be going back, so clear your office’.

“I didn’t know what that meant for my future, whether I’d ever be employable again,” he said. 

In a statement, a woman told of her recent Ofsted “experience as headteacher of a school in special measures”. She was starting to “see positive change” but, in late 2022, Ofsted inspectors “ripped (the) school apart”.

“The things they said about our school were inexplicably cruel and unjustified,” she said. 

In the final feedback meeting, she felt “broken” and “couldn’t speak”.

She developed “chronic stress hives”, suffered “debilitating” panic attacks and had “thoughts life would be better if I disappeared”. She “couldn’t carry on in post”.

She signed a confidentially clause as part of a package to leave her contract early and now “deeply” regrets doing so.

‘NDA use is commonplace’

Richard Tanton, director of member support at ASCL, said the service was “unable to comment on individual cases” but urged members to raise concerns directly.

He said ASCL supports members in “situations where their employer has initiated a protected conversation around a possible settlement agreement” and its “advice is based on forensic analysis and careful consideration of the legal options available”.

In education, as in other sectors, he said “it is commonplace for non-disclosure clauses to be included within settlement agreements, and it would often not be possible to secure these agreements” without them. 

Esther Maxwell, a partner at Shakespeare Martineau, added that NDAs can be a “good way of mitigating the risk of ex-employees” bringing costly employment tribunal claims against schools. They protect confidential information acquired at work and “allow both parties a clean break and a potentially dignified exit”.

But Waters said their use has made it “more difficult to find out how widespread problems are. By preventing people from speaking out we might, in effect, be papering over some wide cracks in the system. 

“I have been contacted by hundreds of teachers and headteachers, but if others are gagged … no-one can know how big a problem this is.”

Emma Knights, co-chief executive of the National Governance Association, said members had told her that NDAs were quite often “instigated by the leader”, for instance because they “can’t face the community” after a bad Ofsted. 

“Sadly there is not the data for us to know exactly what proportion of cases this is,” she added.

But “in other cases”, governors have been “concerned” about a head’s performance and “the Ofsted visit gives them the evidence to take the discussions further”.

Knights suggested that data on whether sacking heads happens more often in trusts with “executive line management than it does with your traditional board of governors” would be useful.

‘Ofsted fear culture must be overcome

But she added that the “culture of fear” of Ofsted needs to be overcome: “It’s about us all – leaders, governors, trustees – having the courage of our convictions and knowing when something is fundamentally on the decline and in real trouble, as opposed to a tiny glitch, as in the Ruth Perry situation.”

An Ofsted spokesperson said that “no teacher should be forced to sign an NDA after an inspection result” and its big listen consultation is “the start of a process of acting on feedback and delivering reforms”.

Some areas are also doing more to support heads after negative Ofsted experiences.

In January Southampton council and trusts in the area backed the “Caversham Covenant” support network for senior teachers.

Named in honour of Perry, it is underpinned by an “understanding that for negative Ofsted inspections, the default solution is to support the head to address the issues causing concern”.

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