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Nursery manager and owner tell of devastation after Ofsted downgrading

A nursery’s manager and owner had to be prescribed medication after they were told their nursery would be given the lowest possible Ofsted rating.

Sarah Laws, the manager of Little Learners Nursery Centre in Richmond, North Yorkshire, and Lesley Johnson, the owner, said they were devastated after being informed the nursery was being downgraded from an outstanding to an inadequate rating.

Laws, who has been the manager for 25 years, said last November’s inspection left staff in tears and five quit within six weeks.

Johnson said the rating made her so ill that she had to be prescribed the tranquilliser diazepam. She instructed a solicitor to challenge the rating, but she said waiting to see if it would be overturned was “absolutely utter torture”. A second inspection in February judged the nursery “good”.

Related: How the death of Ruth Perry has reignited Ofsted inspections row

The pair said they were speaking out after Ruth Perry, a headteacher at Caversham primary school in Reading, killed herself while waiting for an Ofsted report that downgraded her school from outstanding to inadequate.

“I ended up having to go to the doctors and got antidepressants because I was so down and depressed,” said Laws, 48. “I couldn’t even get out of bed.

“As the manager I felt responsible, as it reflects on me because I lead the team. So I can totally sympathise with the headmistress, Ruth, about how this affects you when you work so hard and you’re so dedicated and, at times, like she probably did, I would put the nursery before my own family.”

On Wednesday, the leader of the council in Reading wrote to Ofsted, calling on the schools inspectorate to show “greater compassion” and consider a pause on inspections to allow a period for reflection and review.

The letter – signed by the council leader, Jason Brock, and the council’s lead on education and public health, Ruth McEwan – said that after Perry’s death, serious questions had been raised nationally about the nature of the inspection regime and its impact on schools “which have not been comprehensively engaged with by Ofsted”.

The letter, which was directed at the chief inspector of schools in England, Amanda Spielman, said: “It is clear that there exists a lack of confidence in the way in which the inspection process is conducted. Such concern is not isolated to Reading and is, evidently, felt across the country.”

The nursery was found to be inadequate as a result of concerns about safeguarding, bringing the overall judgment down to the lowest possible category. Laws said staff were questioned about child abuse linked to a belief in witchcraft, but she said the nursery had never been given guidance about the issue.

Laws said the rating made her feel as if she, too, was “inadequate”, adding: “It made me feel that I should go and I wasn’t good enough to do the job any more. That I’d let my staff down, that I’d let the parents down, that I’d let the kids down. That I was worthless. That maybe my time doing the job was over.”

Johnson told how morale in the nursery was so low after the inspection that staff quit, saying they were completely leaving early-years education. The 68-year-old said she contemplated selling the nursery.

“I had to go to the doctors to get some tranquillisers,” she said. “I couldn’t calm down. It was the most awful feeling because the morale was just flat. Five girls left and me and Sarah just didn’t know what we were going to do because it’s hard to get those people back.

“I stopped work because I couldn’t cope, and I knew that I had to challenge the rating because it wasn’t right. But I felt that I couldn’t fight it, I wasn’t capable mentally of fighting this case, so I got a solicitor to do it for me.”

Chloe Parish, a solicitor from Stephensons, said she had challenged Ofsted’s conclusions and judgments and the inspector’s conduct. She said the draft report had also included concerns staff had insufficient safeguarding knowledge about the anti-radicalisation strategy Prevent and county lines.

She said: “All staff bar one had been able to answer questions regarding county lines, and that member of staff was on her third day of employment at the nursery. No staff members were asked about Prevent duty, therefore it was unclear how conclusions in respect of this had been reached.

“Staff were questioned in respect of witchcraft, however were unable to answer those questions because training had not been provided. This was because witchcraft had never been raised as an issue or a training requirement by the local authority safeguarding hub, which is where nurseries seek guidance from.

“Evidence was provided whereby the local authority substantiated this point, confirming that witchcraft was not guidance that had been issued or needed to be issued in that particular area.”

After her submission, Parish said Ofsted confirmed it had decided the inspection was incomplete. A second inspection was conducted by a different inspector, and the nursery received an overall grading of “good”. “Although this was a fantastic outcome for this provider, ultimately it does highlight the ever growing concerns that there are inconsistencies across Ofsted inspections and the judgments reached,” Parish said.

An Ofsted spokesperson said: “Following a review of the evidence, we deemed this inspection to be incomplete. Inspectors later returned to the nursery to gather additional evidence, complete the inspection and confirm the inspection judgments.”

North Yorkshire county council has been approached for comment. Ofsted declined to comment on Reading council’s letter.