Steve Beegoo, our Head of Education, asks whether there might be a better solution to keep our schools accountable.
The recent scrutiny of Ofsted due to the tragic death of Ruth Perry, headteacher of Caversham Primary School Reading, has demonstrated the love/hate relationship many in education have with the inspection body. Sadly, after her school was downgraded from ‘Outstanding’ to ‘Inadequate’, the headteacher took her own life in what her family called a ‘direct’ response to the Ofsted rating.
Instead of the current processes of Ofsted inspection is there something which we should be praying for so that schools can be appropriately held accountable?
Ofsted is the main inspecting body for schools, and has four summary ratings which consist of one or two words. You are either Outstanding, Good, Requires Improvement or Inadequate. Should certain specific areas such as employment records and checks linked to safeguarding, or key health and safety provisions be below an expected level, the summary rating is required to be ‘Inadequate’, despite the quality of educational standards, behaviour of pupils, or positive views of parents. Many schools celebrate their Ofsted result and some even welcome the scrutiny. Parents like to know what inspectors have said and find it useful, but there are many issues with the current statutory processes.
An organisation being rated ‘inadequate’ in any area of life is bound to cause upset to anyone except the most hardened of people involved in that organisation. Feeling that you have being called ‘inadequate’ as a person, is, of course, much more likely to cause personal distress. Ms Perry will have felt this acutely. Headteachers, especially those who have served for many years in a school, uniquely feel responsible for the children in their care. Many see their primary school as a family, a very special community which is an extension of the home. It should be more than a business with key performance indicators. It should be more than an academic factory to be audited.
Headteachers are under greater levels of stress than at any time. The academic, pastoral, safeguarding, financial and managerial responsibilities can result in a punishing workload. That a headteacher has chosen to take their own life is a deep tragedy, but sadly not unexpected given the pressures involved. And the processes and the requirements in terms of rating schools, which Ofsted employ, only add to this stress. Research by the University of Leeds and the Hazards Campaign found that stress regarding Ofsted inspections had been included in coroner reports for ten deaths in the past 25 years. This additional tragedy rightly is a time to reflect on what could be done instead.
One key issue is the secrecy required as part of the process. Lisa Telling, a head teacher in Reading who knew Ms Perry well, said she had been under “enormous stress” and “knew the outcome of her report but was unable to tell her staff”. But the secrecy includes the lack of transparency of Ofsted judgements themselves.
Headteachers are required not to reveal inspection judgements to colleagues, for understandable reasons, but this also can add to the weight being carried on behalf of a school community, especially when awaiting the publication of a regulatory failure. The inability to effectively appeal against any judgement, or to scrutinise the evidence which an Ofsted inspector has used, has led to many to call for a reform of Ofsted even before this tragedy.
The Positive Ofsted Reform website, formed in 2021, indicates some of the key issues which have been evidenced. As the group states:
“The teaching profession is at breaking point, and Ofsted is a major factor behind it. Teachers are not given enough time to prepare for an inspection. Inspectors are known to focus on minor details. Reports are too high level, not containing useful information or a strong evidence base. Good practice and pupil achievement is ignored. There is no meaningful way to complain. Ofsted itself is almost entirely unaccountable to the Department for Education and to Parliament. This has to stop! Ofsted needs to be reformed for the sake of teachers, and ultimately for the sake of pupils.”
A former headteacher who co-founded Headrest, a helpline for headteachers in crisis, said his previous role as an Ofsted inspector “was the most callous experience of my life.” Mr Morrish was a part of the inspection team for more than 50 inspections during his time as an inspector, and stepped back from his role at Ofsted in 2016.
He explained recently how the team would often “make their mind up” about a school before the inspection, and how they would instruct team members to find evidence backing up their preconceptions. He further explained the level of confirmation bias and how when finding positive evidence counter to what had been expected, inspection team members were told, “No, you can’t use that. That doesn’t meet the narrative.”
“It was the most callous experience of my life – it was evil – because we’d sit there, we’d give them the feedback, and then we’d have to leave. We couldn’t hang around afterwards – Ofsted were quite clear about that,” he said.
Mr Morrish explained that “virtually every single call” that his helpline Headrest has received since it was established during the pandemic “traces back to Ofsted and the pressure associated with inspections.”
“Don’t forget if you’re a headteacher, you’re part of the local community. You see everyone in Tesco at the weekend – you’re at church with them, you’re at the gym with them, you’re at the pub with them,” he said.
Michael Gove has said ministers need to re-evaluate how readily schools can be labelled ‘inadequate’ amid the recent widespread calls to reform Ofsted from Mr Morrish and many others. Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, conceded on Friday that debate about the one-word grades was “legitimate”. Paul Gosling, president of the National Association of Head Teachers, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the one-word assessments were too simplistic to sum up the complexity of school life.
“One word indictments” of a school’s performance can be “very punitive,” the Association of Christian Teachers (ACT) has said after calls for Ofsted inspections to be paused.
Executive Officer of ACT, Lizzie Harewood, criticised what she called “the immense amount of stress and pressure put on teachers and leaders” by the current methods of assessing a school’s performance.
“There’s a growing call from across the education sector that perhaps there is reform that is needed,” she continued, “and that’s from Christians and those teachers that aren’t Christians.”
As a former secondary school teacher who said she knew personally the stress of inspection, Ms Harewood said the concerns of professionals she spoke to about Ofsted weren’t because they were “afraid of being accountable.”
“You are basically singing to their tune,” she said about the government agency. “You’re doing all you can to ensure that you’re fulfilling criteria, rather than actually educating and caring for young people and children.”
Ofsted has provided a service to schools, the government and parents, but seems to have become an unaccountable power which can act as a very blunt instrument. The health and safety of headteachers is now clearly at risk from their inspections. As reforms are called for, we should pray for a more collaborative and accountable system, that allows for judgments to be made which are able to be scrutinised and appealed. The whole process should be framed as developmental, supporting schools to improve and not as coldly judgemental.
As so much in our schools has been open to a secularisation and sexualisation of the curriculum, we do need effective scrutiny but also wisdom. Inspections have sometimes helped forward a sexualising agenda at times, even encouraging gender identity teaching. As we await the appointment of a new chief inspector in place of Amanda Spielman, let us pray for the Lord’s appointment. Let us pray that as pressure mounts for change, that God’s wisdom will prevail in ministers and inspectors alike. And let us also pray for the grieving family of Ruth Perry and the school community effected by her tragic death.