Should Ofsted behave like swooping hawks? How can schools thrive in a climate of fear?

<span>Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

When inspectors from Ofsted, England’s education watchdog, descended on Flora Cooper’s Berkshire primary school this week, there was a small but poignant crowd of protesters waiting at the gates.

I don’t know what I’m doing,” the headteacher had tweeted the night before, of her plans to refuse them entry. “But someone has to.” In the end she let the inspection proceed – obstructing it risks a £2,500 fine – but her stand felt like a Spartacus moment for teaching nonetheless.

Cooper was moved, as so many have been, by the suicide of her fellow head Ruth Perry, whose primary school in nearby Reading had been abruptly marked down from outstanding to inadequate. Feelings are running high in schools around the country, and the unions’ call to pause inspections, allowing everyone to take a breath, seems eminently sensible.

As Samaritans says, there is rarely one simple cause of suicide, and this tragedy is now best examined by an inquest in possession of all the facts. In the meantime, children need shielding from the anxieties of the adults looking after them, which is why suggestions from one Suffolk headteachers’ group that staff don black armbands and observe a minute’s silence during Ofsted visits make me frankly uneasy. But the anger unleashed this week has been building for years now, and it deserves to be taken seriously.

Headteachers have moved heaven and earth over the last three years, through lockdowns and reopenings, never quite knowing when the rules would change overnight, or whether they would have enough staff fit to work. Now a burnt-out workforce faces Covid’s educational long tail: an alarming number of pupils who have learned to see school as optional, a yawning gap between rich and poor now aggravated by the cost of living crisis, and pressure to help kids catch up without the funding to match. How utterly demoralising to be judged wanting, after all that, by an inspectorate that has chosen this moment to raise the bar.

Last year’s revised framework made the coveted “outstanding” grade harder to get, with roughly a fifth of those who already had it – and were thus exempt from inspections for more than a decade as inspectors focused on the stragglers – busted down to “requires improvement” or worse when they were reinspected last year.

The worst verdict, “inadequate”, can be career-ending for headteachers, and risks putting nurseries out of business as panicking parents withdraw their toddlers. For staff who know they’re shortly due an inspection, the stress of waiting for the call is often worse than the inspection itself: it means months or even years of dry runs, drills, being constantly on high alert.

The bureaucratic process of documenting exactly how you’ve jumped through the required hoops, meanwhile, drains time and energy away from actually doing so. Yet, as Louise Casey’s damning report on the Metropolitan police this week reminded us, public services must ultimately be accountable for the lives they hold in their hands.

Ruth Perry’s school, Caversham primary, sounds thoroughly lovely, from its report. The inspectors praised the “warm and supportive” relationships between children and their teachers, the love of reading that was fostered, and the “exemplary” classroom behaviour of pupils. Parents raved about it, and it was graded good in every category but one. That one, however, was leadership, where it was marked down on safeguarding.

I’ve undergone basic safeguarding training as a school governor in the past, and it was the bleakest of afternoons. To understand the diagrams showing the difference between an everyday scraped knee and injuries that are more likely to be non-accidental, you have to visualise how a small child would instinctively curl up to protect themselves when repeatedly punched by an adult. I still remember one teacher saying that the worst disclosures often come late on a Friday, when fear of what’s coming over the weekend weighs heavily on children’s minds. There are good reasons why an “inadequate” grade for safeguarding can instantly scupper an otherwise glowing report. But that means inspectors must be very sure of their ground before condemning.

Caversham was accused, among other failings, of not ensuring that employment checks for teachers were complete, and “poor” tracking of responses to safeguarding concerns. It’s unclear how major or minor the omissions were, but paperwork is not a petty thing: good note-keeping helps to stop cases falling through cracks between different agencies, and can be important if criminal charges follow. Ofsted is obliged to treat safeguarding failures with great seriousness, yet the public shame surrounding its judgments is intense, especially for teachers working under the kind of pressure where it’s almost inevitable that something will slip.

All of which begs a broader question about what exactly Ofsted is for. Should inspectors be hawks, swooping suddenly to catch schools out, or collaborators focused on helping teachers improve? Could that answer vary depending on whether we’re talking about safeguarding or, say, children’s personal development?

Either way, the strategy of leaving high performers to their own devices for a decade seems to have served nobody. Little but often may be a healthier inspection model than one all-defining, dreaded judgment day; less Damoclean sword, more firm but helpful guiding hand. The shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, is right, too, that summing up schools with a one-word grade is crude, and a “report card” approach may be fairer.

But when Ofsted, rightly, expects teachers to simultaneously challenge and support children while remaining ever vigilant to whatever is going on in the background, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprised if the same tricky balance is expected of it.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

  • In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or email or In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at