The last of the year six leavers left the playground, prised away from classmates they may not see again, by dewy-eyed parents with their bags overstuffed with exercise books and their shirts scrawled with messages.
It was just like a normal end of another school year at Caversham Primary, but it was anything but normal. The school has been on the most horrendous journey to end up almost exactly where it started, and the cost of that journey, the life of its headteacher, Ruth Perry, was just too high. The result of the school’s reinspection has left the whole community with a complex mixture of pride and desolation.
In terms of the actual substance of the report, there is very little that I, as a parent, would argue with. It paints a picture of the school I know and love, a “calm and purposeful” environment where “the school’s values are lived and breathed by pupils and adults alike”.
But scratch the surface and you can see more than a hint of the trauma the school has been subjected to. The report says the pupils are “resilient and determined”. They’ve had to be. For many, Ruth Perry’s untimely passing was their first experience of bereavement. I know of several who couldn’t sleep in their own beds for months after we lost her. At one point, my daughter asked me: “Will all my teachers die now?”
The report doesn’t shy away from its relationship to the one carried out in November 2022, but the consequences of that previous inspection are conspicuous by their absence. Ofsted is pleased to promote the “swift, thorough and effective” work the school has done to “address previous weaknesses”. It paints the inspectorate as a saviour who intervened so that now the children are safe. We are expected to rejoice.
I am incredibly proud of the senior leadership team and the governors for having so successfully jumped through all of Ofsted’s hoops, but the narrative is deeply suspect.
To begin with, the school development plan generated in the aftermath of the original inspection, by Ruth Perry herself, doesn’t read like a list of herculean tasks amounting to a complete cultural shift. It reads like a checklist of simple training and clerical exercises.
Caversham Primary is as it has always been: a wonderful school that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend and wouldn’t hesitate to send my children to. What is alarming is Ofsted’s repeated use of safeguarding as a trump card to shut down criticism of their actions.
Some of the issues identified in the November inspection were factually correct. There were things that needed to be addressed. The issue is whether Ofsted’s response was proportionate, fair, and consistent with its evaluation of other schools.
The frustration is that Ofsted know full well that nobody can refute their judgements on these matters because they can shield themselves behind the confidentiality that safeguarding affords them. Even so, we can read other reports with similar judgements and see that different conclusions were reached in other places. Meanwhile, a school that has incredibly good results, scores exceptionally highly in Ofsted’s own parent satisfaction survey and provides a quality of education that even the November report described in glowing terms was judged ‘inadequate’.
What has appalled me over the past six months is the complete lack of introspection or humility on the part of the inspectorate. Amanda Spielman has said on numerous occasions that the Caversham Primary judgements are ‘sound’. At the pre-inquest into Ruth Perry’s death, Ofsted argued that the mental crisis that led to the loss of life had nothing whatsoever to do with the actions of the inspection team. Instead, it was exacerbated by a lack of support from the local authority and governors whose incompetence left Ruth feeling isolated and alone.
I am deeply concerned about the potential repercussions of Ofsted holding the governors responsible for Ruth Perry’s death. Our schools depend on a system of volunteer governors. Who in their right mind would want to be one if the role comes with such high stakes?
I also have serious concerns about the local authority’s ability to defend itself against Ofsted’s seven-person inquest team. In contrast, the single lawyer representing the LA and the school seemed to display a lack of knowledge when it came to the names and roles of the senior leadership team and governors.
Spielman’s recent Festival of Education address typifies Ofsted’s response to the crisis. In the opening statement she ‘lampshades’ the backlash against Ofsted by acknowledging the “heartfelt reaction to Ruth Perry’s very sad death” but frames the response to the tragedy as a “debate about school accountability” which is akin to arguing that the dinosaurs’ extinction revolves around the composition of the asteroid that hit them. It isn’t accountability that is at the centre of the debate but its impact.
Spielman’s use of the word accountability could hardly be more ironic. Again and again, I’ve heard Ofsted articulate the defence that they have no duty of care over the people they assess, they “are only responsible for diagnosis. Others have the responsibility for support and improvement”.
Nothing more perfectly exemplifies this than the coroner’s astonishment at the response of Ofsted’s lawyer when asked to submit their ‘serious case review’ on the events at Caversham. Ofsted had not remotely considered that they would even need to conduct such a review. All they had done was check that the findings of the inspection were correct according to the terms of the framework. By contrast, the NHS automatically conducted a serious case review of all their interactions with Ruth Perry to ensure that she had received the appropriate care from them.
The pupils are gone. The classrooms and staff room are empty. The library bus is locked. The sign by the front gate has been removed and will no longer bear Ruth Perry’s name. The year sixes will move on to secondary school, but everyone else will be back in September, and none of us will forget what she achieved at the school. We won’t let Ofsted forget either.