‘We felt Ofsted made the decision before they’d even walked through the door’

School parents mourn the death of headteacher Ruth Perry - Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
School parents mourn the death of headteacher Ruth Perry - Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

Headteachers are in revolt. The system by which they are judged – Ofsted – is badly in need of reform, they say. Not only has it been downgrading schools for “unfair” reasons, they argue, but “punitive” inspections are placing a devastating personal strain on school leaders, costing them their health, potentially their careers and, in extreme cases, their lives.

This week, a wave of outrage swept through the teaching profession following the death of Ruth Perry. The 53-year-old headteacher at Caversham Primary School in Reading took her own life in January while awaiting an Ofsted report that would downgrade her school from “outstanding” to “inadequate”. Her family said in the past few days that they were in no doubt “Ruth’s death was a direct result of the pressure put on her by the process and outcome of an Ofsted inspection.”

Her suicide, which fellow headteachers stress is not the first to be linked to Ofsted pressures, has lit the touchpaper beneath existing unrest among school leaders in England. Tweeting “#ReformOfsted”, teaching professionals and others are calling for change. On Monday, Flora Cooper, a primary headteacher in Berkshire, said she planned to refuse inspectors entry. Unions say the tragedy of Perry’s death must be a watershed moment and are calling on Ofsted to pause inspections and review the current system.

Ofsted was established in 1992; but the framework used to assess schools has been updated during the years since. There is, of course, agreement that schools and their headteachers must be accountable. “Before Ofsted, schools were a law unto themselves,” says one former headteacher. What they take issue with is what is being assessed, and how.

Ruth Perry took her own life in January while waiting for the publication of an Ofsted report
Ruth Perry took her own life in January while waiting for the publication of an Ofsted report

One major problem, it seems, is that slapping a one- or two-word verdict on a school – either “outstanding”, “good”, “requires improvement” or “inadequate” – has far-reaching effects.

These start with the massive impact on headteachers, who feel personally judged (and, depending on the grade, found wanting), and ripple out to affect entire communities, including local house prices.

Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, has this week opened the door to scrapping these one-word ratings, saying the debate around reforming inspections to remove grades is a “legitimate one”.

Last year, it was reported that hundreds of schools in England have been downgraded by Ofsted after being reinspected, following a new criterion for inspectors introduced in 2019. Ofsted has also begun reviewing institutions that had previously been exempt from regular inspections because they had been rated as “outstanding”.

Headteachers say schools can find themselves downgraded for what they feel to be spurious reasons, or because disproportionate weight has been placed on one negative aspect of the teaching or pastoral care, such as record-keeping, or personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education.

“You feel you’ve let the school down and the kids, teachers and governors,” says Clare Wagner, headteacher of Henrietta Barnett School, a girls’ grammar in north London that was downgraded from outstanding to good last year. Despite achieving excellent results – its GCSEs were among the best in the country – Wagner says inspectors told her those pupils “would do well anywhere”.

She adds: “It was very demoralising. They were so unpleasant and uncooperative and were looking to find fault. They didn’t say one nice thing about the school or the kids.”

Some 34 pupils received Oxbridge offers last year. But inspectors found the school was failing to adequately prepare them for university. Wagner says she’s unclear about what they based this judgment on.

The school appealed against its downgrade, but to no avail. “When people say, ‘tell me about your Ofsted,’ even now I just feel sick,” says Wagner, who had only been at the school for two terms when Ofsted arrived.

“It’s a punitive experience,” says Nadia Hewstone, a former school leader who now coaches headteachers. “It’s a checklist. Schools are led by educators and carers, Ofsted comes in and it’s pure judgment against a set of criteria. They’re not interested in how you solve the problems they highlight. The experience of my [clients] is it often feels like the decision has been made before the inspectors come in.”

Clare Wagner of Henrietta Barnett school, which was downgraded by Ofsted - Jamie Lorriman
Clare Wagner of Henrietta Barnett school, which was downgraded by Ofsted - Jamie Lorriman

This was how headteacher Maureen Cobbett felt when Ofsted inspected The Latymer School, another high-performing North London grammar downgraded from “outstanding” to “good” last year. “We felt they’d made the decision before they’d even walked through the door,” she says. “They’d been on the school website and had a particular issue with one subject – maths.”

The lead inspector felt the school was obsessing over GCSE outcomes when teaching maths to Years 7, 8 and 9, she says. “He wouldn’t let it go,” says Cobbett, who felt the criticism was wrong and unfair and that the school wasn’t listened to about it. “My overall impression is they have on their computers these forms they need to fill in. Questions are fired at us and at heads of department so [the inspectors] can tick boxes.”

Harton Academy in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, was rated outstanding in 2013, when it operated as Harton Technology College. It converted to an academy in 2017 and Sir Ken Gibson, the headteacher, says it remains the most oversubscribed school in the area. Yet it was downgraded to “requires improvement” last year, with inspectors criticising “gaps in record-keeping” and the PSHE curriculum, for not being “embedded for all year groups,” meaning “some pupils have not learned about important topics that will prepare them for life in modern Britain”.

Gibson made a formal complaint about the downgrading of the coastal school that has its own pool. “[The inspectors] were putting words into the mouths of babes by speaking to the students in the playground,” he says. “They were [speaking to] the children and saying, ‘Do they teach you the dangers of swimming in the sea?’” Gibson says they also asked, “Is this a racist school?”

One headteacher of a downgraded school says an Ofsted inspector asked a female pupil whether she had witnessed any instances of sexualised behaviour at school. The school had done a lot of work on the MeToo movement, and the girl in question, a Year 11 pupil, mentioned a minor incident that had taken place a year or so earlier. The inspector apparently interpreted this as evidence of sexualised behaviour within the school. “It was nonsense,” says the headteacher, who wishes to remain anonymous. “There’s no more sexualised behaviour here than anywhere else.”

The effects of Ofsted inspections on teachers’ mental health is now well documented.

Nadia Hewstone, a school leader coach says: “The biggest thing is the impact that worrying about Ofsted has on their health. It [causes] fear of losing their jobs if they get downgraded, fear of what other people think of them, fear of losing pupils because of families fleeing the school, and of losing funding.”

These fears lead to sleeplessness, anxiety, palpitations, and to feeling sick, isolated and scared, she says and is a “big reason” why some deputy heads choose not to apply for headteacher roles. Anecdotal evidence suggests Ofsted-related pressures are driving other school leaders out of the profession altogether.

Today, calls for reform have reached a crescendo. Teaching unions and campaigners are calling for an overhaul of the whole system. A group of educationalists called Positive Ofsted Reform wants to see a strategic review because Ofsted, it warns, is “imposing its own view to the detriment of high performing schools”, inspections are causing “unnecessary levels of stress to teachers and pupils” and there is, it alleges, a lack of accountability.

Labour has said it would scrap the four categories used to rank schools. But the Government is yet to promise an overhaul. A Department for Education spokesman says: “Inspections are hugely important as they hold schools to account for their educational standards and parents greatly rely on the ratings to give them confidence in choosing the right school for their child.

“We offer our deep condolences to the family and friends of Ruth Perry following her tragic death and are continuing to provide support to Caversham Primary School at this difficult time.”

Matthew Purves, Ofsted’s regional director for the South East, says: “We were deeply saddened by Ruth Perry’s tragic death. Our thoughts remain with Mrs Perry’s family, friends and everyone in the Caversham Primary School community.”