How the death of Ruth Perry has reignited Ofsted inspections row

<span>Photograph: Antonio Zazueta Olmos/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Antonio Zazueta Olmos/The Guardian

Last week, the head of Ofsted and chief inspector of schools in England, took to Twitter. “The ad for my successor is out,” Amanda Spielman wrote. “I’ll be leaving this amazing job at the end of 2023, and if you think you have the experience, the energy and the commitment it needs, and want to work with our fantastic staff, apply here.”

Seven days later, the organisation she has led for six years has found itself at the centre of a public outcry. A headteacher has killed herself, according to her family, after an Ofsted inspection downgraded her school from “outstanding” to “inadequate”.

The family of Ruth Perry has acknowledged that the reasons behind someone taking their own life are never simple. Her story however has struck a chord with headteachers across the country, and has fuelled demand for change at Ofsted.

The National Education Union, which believes the inspectorate should be abolished, will this week hand in a petition to the Department for Education with over 40,000 signatures from across the profession demanding that it is replaced.

“It’s time we urgently prioritise the welfare and wellbeing of the leaders and staff working so hard with children and young people in their community,” said NEU joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted. “We need a system which is supportive, effective and fair.’’

Whether applications continue to roll in for this most exposed of jobs remains to be seen.

Headteacher Flora Cooper welcomes children arriving at the school.
Headteacher Flora Cooper welcomes children arriving at the school. Photograph: Antonio Zazueta Olmos/The Guardian

The inspectorate, which was created in 1992 to inform parents about the performance of a school and help raise standards, has long been criticised by school leaders who argue it places them under “intolerable pressure” in a high-stakes system that can result in them losing their job.

There have however been key developments in recent years which have added to the pressure the system brings to bear on those who lead our schools, many of whom live in fear of “the call” that comes the day before an Ofsted visit.

One is the pandemic, which led Ofsted to suspend inspections – much to the relief of many in the profession – only for them to be reintroduced in the summer of 2021 with an expedited timeline to ensure that all schools and colleges are inspected by summer 2025.

“Every headteacher feels as though they could be inspected at any moment,” said one school leader. This is at a time when schools are struggling with high absence rates and development/learning delays in children more severely affected by the Covid disruption.

Another significant factor, which appears to be relevant in the case of Ruth Perry’s Ofsted outcome, is the decision to end the exemption to inspection for schools that have previously been judged “outstanding”. As a result schools are being inspected for the first time in 10 years or more, which has resulted in many being downgraded.

This was the case at Perry’s school, Caversham primary school in Reading, which was downgraded after 13 years without an inspection. Ofsted judged the school good in every category apart from leadership and management, where it was found to be inadequate as a result of concerns about safeguarding, bringing the overall judgment down to the lowest possible category.

It was also being judged against a new inspection framework, introduced by Spielman in 2019 and welcomed by many school leaders because of its shift of emphasis away from results and data, and a new focus on the curriculum and “the substance of education”. It did however change the criteria for being awarded “outstanding”, which made it more difficult to achieve.

There have also been concerns about the way in which the new framework has been applied, which some headteachers complain has led to inconsistency and unpredictability because judgments are more subjective rather than data driven.

Overshadowing all these concerns however is the grading system, which awards a school “outstanding”, “good”, “requires improvement”, or “inadequate”.

“If you removed that graded judgment, a huge amount of that pressure would disappear pretty much overnight,” said one head. “If you remove the grade, heads would feel better about a lot of what Ofsted currently do.”

Labour has said it plans to scrap school ratings and replace them with a “report card”. Shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, says Ofsted’s current system “is high stakes for staff but low information for parents”. Labour would also introduce annual reviews of school safeguarding as part of its Ofsted changes, to avoid potentially long gaps between inspections.

The teaching unions say that Ofsted is losing the trust of the profession. Spielman’s replacement will have certainly have their work cut out.