The worst thing about the tragic case of Ruth Perry, a headteacher who killed herself as a direct consequence of her school’s negative Ofsted inspection, is that it is not shocking.
For several years, Ofsted has been governing British schools by fear, not authority. Its inspection culture has been overzealous and uncompassionate. An obsession with the top-line grading system has long misrepresented schools both for better and worse. Until recently, those lucky enough to be regarded as ‘outstanding’ were protected from regular inspection. Over 70% of these were then downgraded on their next visit from Ofsted, a staggering statistic from any view. Meanwhile, those deemed ‘inadequate’ are rewarded with intensive and frequent interim inspections and the ignominy of being branded with the term. It is a body increasingly not fit for purpose.
The case of Perry is in many ways extreme and stark, but it also bears the hallmarks of many an Ofsted inspection. A successful and popular school leader overcome by the brutality of the inspectorate’s approach: reduction to a simplistic rating. There may well have been shortcomings in Perry’s Caversham Primary School, but to have all its many successes overshadowed by that one word was unfair and unjustified. Ofsted has now changed previous directives which meant a school with an ‘inadequate’ rating on safeguarding was automatically assigned the grade overall, but changes must not stop there.
Ofsted has long been ignorant to the consequences of its inspections on morale and mental health
An obsession with ratings has long distracted Ofsted from what surely must be its only purpose: to ensure the equality and fair application of school standards. It has taken what is a diverse group of institutions, each with their own unique challenges and circumstances, and attempted to impose a false equivalence. When even former Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has called for the organisation to rethink its approach to the one-word gradings, it is surely time for a change. Labour have proposed to introduce a new report card system, giving a more nuanced assessment of a school’s status. A new approach which does not reduce the effectiveness of inspection but more accurately depicts schools is surely appropriate.
There are also wider questions to be asked of Ofsted’s approach to handling clearly distressed staff on inspections. The coroner’s inquest has concluded that Ruth Perry was deeply unsettled by the attitude of the inspection’s lead member of staff. Ofsted has long been ignorant to the consequences of its inspections on morale and mental health. Outgoing Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman’s initial insistent defence of the inspection’s accuracy was unnecessarily cold and needless. The body is now right to reconsider the efficacy of its staff training and how better to prepare inspectors to interact with the leaders they are so intensely probing.
Were it not for the brave and committed activism of Ruth’s sister, Professor Julia Waters, to ensure her death was not in vain, no such changes may have occurred. Now that the organisation is addressing its long too punitive culture, effective change must occur. Otherwise, it will be incumbent on government to give Ofsted its marching orders.