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13 December 2023

Ofsted must change if it is to regain teachers’ trust

The coroner has ruled in the death of Ruth Perry, but serious questions remain for the schools inspectorate.

By Pippa Bailey

Critics of England’s schools inspectorate Ofsted often describe a “football manager” culture, with headteachers being abruptly fired for their school’s results and others hired on promise of transformation. The comparison is – to use a favourite Ofsted word – inadequate: football managers know in advance when their team will play, and are given multiple matches to prove their worth. Headteachers are given one day’s notice of an inspection, which lasts one or two days depending on the grade of their previous inspection.

Heads have long feared the personal shame of their school being downgraded, as well as the effect it has on staff and potential ostracisation by their community (Ofsted reports affect local house prices). But under the 2010 Academies Act, a school that is given the lowest rating, inadequate, and placed in special measures is automatically forced to become an academy, often involving the replacement of senior leadership.

Such worries, the senior coroner for Berkshire, Heidi Connor, ruled on 7 December played a part in the death of Ruth Perry, a headteacher who took her own life in January while awaiting the publication of an Ofsted report that graded her previously outstanding school inadequate. “The evidence is clear”, the coroner said, that Perry’s suicide was “likely contributed to by an Ofsted inspection”, which Connor deemed “rude and intimidating”. It was the first time the institution has been named a contributing factor in a headteacher’s death.

Since Ofsted was created in 1992, its framework for inspection has been revised four times, each time – to use another football analogy – the goalposts shifting, and the notice period has been reduced from two months to a possible 15 minutes. Schools’ trust in the watchdog has gradually been eroded in tandem. 

This year the Beyond Ofsted inquiry, with research conducted by academics at University College London, reported that 74 per cent of teachers surveyed said their experience of Ofsted was negative, and more than half of those who work at schools rated good or outstanding still felt the judgement was unfair. 

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The academics Martin McKee and Sarah Waters wrote in the British Medical Journal that they were “aware of at least eight other” teachers who have taken their own lives in “circumstances linked to Ofsted inspections”. While following Perry’s case over the past year, I have thought often of my (now retired) mother’s constant fear of Ofsted’s call when she was a headteacher, and how none of us is ever far from ruin.

People stand together holding images of Ruth Perry as they accompany teachers and head teachers to hand in a petition at the Department for Education calling for urgent reform of the school inspection system and the replacement of Ofsted. Photo by Mark Kerrison via Getty Images

The government’s 2020 decision to end an exemption from inspection for schools judged outstanding has led many to be inspected for the first time in ten years – for Perry’s school, the gap between visits was 13 years. The influx of outstanding schools now requiring inspection within four years, along with the backlog caused by the pause during Covid pandemic, has undoubtedly stretched the watchdog.

Caversham Primary School was inspected by Ofsted in November 2022 and deemed good in all areas except “leadership and management” because of safeguarding concerns. That one “inadequate” rating led a school the report otherwise described as “welcoming and vibrant” to be placed in special measures. 

Perry, who was 53 at the time of her death, saw a draft of the report before Christmas last year, but was prevented by confidentiality from discussing it with those close to herSuch isolation surely only added to her despair. She attended Caversham herself as a child, and wrote in her diary in the weeks before her death of how she had “given my life” to the school. “I wake from restless sleep absolutely panic stricken,” she wrote. “‘I.N.A.D.E.Q.U.A.T.E’ keeps flashing behind my eyes.”

In the wake of Perry’s death Caversham was reinspected in June 2023 and, the safeguarding concerns having been addressed, rated good. In changes to how Ofsted operates announced that month, all schools labelled inadequate solely because of safeguarding issues will receive a second visit within three months of the report being published, and academy orders can be revoked in these circumstances. The wording on draft reports has also been changed to make clear that school leaders may share the result with select family and colleagues.

[See also: Can Labour inspire hope?]

After the coroner’s verdict Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, apologised for Perry’s experience, and said the watchdog “will do more” to respond to the coroner’s concerns. She announced a week-long pause in inspections while inspectors receive training on “recognising and responding to visible signs of anxiety” – which, the Guardian revealed, ran for a mere 90 minutes. (At the inquest the inspectorate’s director of education said such concerns already “very much come into our training”, though whistle-blowers have since denied this is the case.) But many teachers and commentators feel these changes don’t go far enough.

Inadequate. Requires improvement. Good. Outstanding. These one- or two-word judgements are the blunt tools used to communicate the many nuances of a school’s strengths and weaknesses, its unique demographics and challenges. Spielman has defended them, saying they are meant to be considered along with the wider report, while the former schools minister Nick Gibb has said without them reports would be too “opaque” for parents. I would be inclined to give parents a little more credit. Labour has pledged to replace them with narrative report cards in power.

Ofsted’s judgement is also only ever a snapshot, made on the basis of one or two days’ of observation and interviews, and on “deep dives” into a few subject areas, relying on exam grades to give a longer term picture. Under such constraints, what inspector, no matter how experienced, could give a more accurate assessment of a school’s quality than the teacher who leads it?

While schools are only given a day’s notice of a visit, the framework for how often they must be inspected means teachers know when their school is in an “Ofsted year”. One friend, who quit teaching just before the pandemic, tells me that in that year, their school was on edge from Monday to Wednesday, awaiting the call. Only on Thursday, when they knew they were “safe” for another week, did they feel able to focus fully on their students. They also spoke of the luck of the draw, with experiences varying wildly between inspectors, and of a regularly changing inspection framework.

It was such disparities that John Major’s government sought to eliminate when it removed the responsibility for inspection from local educational authorities in 1992, and created the national inspectorate. The erosion of local authorities continued with the creation of academies, which are accountable directly to the Secretary of State, under Tony Blair, and with Michael Gove’s expansion of the programme. Today, while it is Ofsted that judges a school’s performance, how it improves on that rating is the responsibility of regional education directors.

A punitive, football manager culture conflates these two roles, according to a paper published by the IPPR think tank in November, which recommends that changes within schools should be led by regional leaders with detailed, local knowledge – not by forced academisation – and that “one dimensional judgements” be replaced with narrative reports. A more regular, ongoing and collaborative inspection routine (perhaps with all notice removed), conducted by local inspectors known and trusted by schools, could reduce the pressure on individual teachers – though it would require considerable re-investment in local authorities.

The Beyond Ofsted inquiry report, also published in November, goes further, recommending that national inspection be replaced by self-reporting and partnership with an “improvement partner” from an academy trust or local authority. Such a model would be closer to those of South Korea, Singapore and Finland – countries whose successful education systems Gove’s 2010 reforms sought to emulate.

Ofsted is limited in what change it can impose on itself; “root and branch” reform, as Ruth Perry’s sister called for after the coroner’s verdict, must be legislated for. Perhaps it could start by making the ability to “recognis[e] and respond to visible signs of anxiety” a person specification for potential inspectors, rather than something to be learned on the job. 

The Education Select Committee’s own inquiry into Ofsted’s work is ongoing. Amanda Spielman will leave her post as chief inspector at the end of the year, to be replaced by Martyn Oliver, a former headteacher and academy trust chief executive, who has already scheduled a meeting with Perry’s sister to discuss reform. It is hard to imagine how trust and respect between schools and the inspectorate could be rebuilt without it.

[See also: Without teachers, the country stops working]

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