Ofsted has moved from being “critical friend to simply a critic”, the children’s commissioner has said, as she called on incoming chief Sir Martyn Oliver to fix “what went wrong” under his predecessor.
Dame Rachel de Souza also took aim at the Department for Education’s intervention in failing schools, which made the “humbling and humiliating experience” of an ‘inadequate’ judgment “so much worse”.
Speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference, de Souza, the founder and former chief executive of the Inspiration Trust academy chain, spoke about the inspection of Great Yarmouth Primary Academy.
The school was plunged into special measures in 2018, prompting immediate public criticism of the inspection process by de Souza.
“It was a devastating experience,” she told delegates today. “I’m not talking about the judgment…but what happens, how Ofsted deal with you, how the regulator deals with you. That humiliation that you feel.”
Unlike many schools that are rated ‘inadequate’, Great Yarmouth remained with the trust, and was subsequently rated ‘good’ in 2021.
She admitted her campaign in the press was something was something “I could probably get away with once, probably not again”.
But she said leaders “need the chutzpah of our belief as professionals to know the truth about our schools”.
‘Humbling and humiliating’
“I think that experience, that humbling and humiliating experience, where we have to ask ourselves these deep questions, but made so much worse by that one word judgment, made so much worse by how the DfE, how the regulator dealt with it.
“You know, get it right or we’ll take it off you and give it to someone else.”
Her comments come amid fierce criticism of the inspectorate following the death of headteacher Ruth Perry.
The headteacher of Caversham Primary School in Berkshire, died in January. Her family said she took her own life before the publication of an inspection report rating the school ‘inadequate’.
de Souza said her experience made her feel “really strongly that Ofsted, and what we’ve seen this last year is Ofsted move I think from critical friend, to simply a critic, and that’s what we’ve got to fight against”.
She pointed to Oliver’s appointment to take over from current chief inspector Amanda Spielman in January.
“We’ve got a chance. We’ve got a new HMCI coming in. It’s a bit like the Pope. Every new Pope fixes what went wrong with the Pope before. And I hope that the pendulum will swing on some of those key areas.
“Post pandemic, we need Ofsted now to keep up. The work that our heads are doing on mental health, on basic support for children, on wellbeing or just getting them back being able to communicate needs recognising.”
Heads face ‘mental torture’ waiting for call
She also called on Oliver to tackle “variations in inspectors”.
“The thing that upsets heads the most is when you get an inspector who you just think, they’re not good enough. They’re not there.”
The fringe event, organised by the Education Policy Institute, also heard from leadership unions.
Paul Whiteman, from the NAHT, warned it had become “so disproportionately important” to schools to get an ‘outstanding’ judgment that leaders in their inspection window went through a “kind of mental torture” waiting for a phone call on a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
“And if your phone doesn’t ring you breathe out, and you’ve got two days off and the weekend before you go through that mental torture again. And that can go on for over 12 months.”
He talked of members phoning “in tears, believe that their career is at an end and having to take them through that and help them recover from that and then recover their school is a really difficult thing to do”.
Whiteman also warned that although leaders with “a swagger” could tackle poor ratings, more “inexperienced” leaders were being “crushed by the impact of something like a bad inspection report”.
“And these are the people we’re supposed to be bringing through for the next the next decade or so.”
‘Keep your head down’, Barton urges Oliver
Oliver’s appointment comes at a time of uncertainty for Ofsted. A general election will be held next year, which Labour is odds-on to win, and the party has said it will replace Ofsted grades with report cards showing schools’ strengths and weaknesses.
Geoff Barton, from the ASCL union, said if he was advising Oliver, “I would say to him, you’re starting in January. You’ve got a secretary of state at the moment who will change nothing. You’ve got a potential future secretary of state who’s talking about radically changing things.
“So why don’t you, at the moment, keep your head down? Why don’t you listen to what the profession is saying? Talk to people who have been inspectors who are inspectors, talk to parents and to governors, talk to people who’ve got the data on the impact of all of this.
“So when a future [education secretary] says to you, ‘what should the direction of travel be?’ You can say ‘based on evidence rather than personal prejudice, here’s where I think we need to move next’. And I think that will be a defining moment for the next stage of Ofsted.”