What is Ofsted? Changes on the horizon following death of Ruth Perry

Inspectors have been told to be more 'empathetic' to teachers (Ben Birchall / PA)
Inspectors have been told to be more 'empathetic' to teachers (Ben Birchall / PA)

MPs have called for a ban on Ofsted grading schools using a “single-word judgement".

A recent report has said the Government body should be stopped from rating schools with words such as “inadequate”, “poor”, “good”, or “outstanding” as they seek to push through reforms following the death of headteacher Ruth Perry.

The cross-party Education Select Committee said that while they still want “strong accountability” in schools, they want to put in place a more empathetic approach and recognised that relationships between school and the ranking body had become “extremely strained” and “worryingly low".

Ofsted have said they are “open” to changing the wording of the current system which is in place.

The committee's inquiry – and subsequent report – ended just weeks after the conclusion of the inquest into the death of Mrs Perry, who took her own life after an Ofsted inspection at her school in November 2022.

She had been head of Caversham Primary, in Reading, Berkshire, for 13 years.

A coroner said the inspection was at times "rude and intimidating" when it downgraded her school to the lowest rating, "inadequate".

The report also recommended that schools “should not” be automatically downgraded as “inadequate” for minor safeguarding concerns and said a common-sense approach should be looked at going forward.

Speaking previously, Ofsted's new chief Sir Martyn Oliver has said it must listen to the criticism it has received following the suicide of Mrs Perry.

A coroner confirmed that a critical Ofsted report did in fact contribute to the death of the 53-year-old teacher. The coroner said the inspection had "lacked fairness, respect and sensitivity".

Inspectors are set to receive training about mental health at the start of the new term under reforms.

Since the inquest into Mrs Perry's death, headteachers' unions have demanded that school inspections are paused.

Sir Oliver – who took over the job as chief inspector on January 1 – told BBC News that Ofsted had "a difficult job to do".

He said: "Ultimately, we have to be about high standards and say to parents, 'These are the standards that are being provided'. But I think we can do that in a way that is far more empathetic."

He added that Mrs Perry's death was a "terrible tragedy and a real shock".

Ruth Perry’s family welcomed the education committee’s report (Andrew Matthews / PA Wire)
Ruth Perry’s family welcomed the education committee’s report (Andrew Matthews / PA Wire)

The chief inspector will oversee an internal review so Ofsted can meet a legal duty to respond to the coroner.

Sir Oliver said he will bring in additional mental health expertise, develop training for inspectors, and will see through changes already underway to make it easier for schools to raise concerns.

He also wants to recruit more heads to get involved in Ofsted inspections to rebuild trust; "I am determined that we shall learn those lessons and we shall review our practises, we shall work with others and we shall respond fully to the coroner's inquest."

Professor Julia Waters, Mrs Perry's sister, has been campaigning for change and met with Sir Oliver to discuss this, according to the BBC.

So what is Ofsted and what does it do? Here’s what you need to know.

What is Ofsted?

Ofsted is short for the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills. The body inspects services that provide education or skills trainers for students regardless of their age. It also inspects and regulates services that care for children and young people such as children’s homes.

Ofsted inspectors go to view services under their remit and provide a rating dependent on what they find on their visit. They are legally allowed to arrive with little notice. They report directly to Parliament, parents, carers and commissioners.

Ofsted is a non-ministerial department of the UK Government, although its ethos is to be “independent and impartial”.

In each area, services are graded and then placed into one of four categories: Grade one (outstanding), grade two (good), grade three (requires improvement) and grade four (inadequate).

Can Ofsted fire a headteacher?

No. Ofsted has no power to fire a headteacher and it does not instruct governing bodies to do so either.

Are Ofsted inspections compulsory?

Yes. All childcare providers caring for children from September 1 following their fifth birthday up to the age of eight, must register with Ofsted on the Compulsory Childcare Register (CCR).

How often does a school get an Ofsted inspection?

Ofsted inspections can take place at any point from five school days after the first day pupils attend in the autumn term.

Schools are normally judged every four years, but a lot can depend on the type of institution and the previous grading the school received.

If there was a previous “inadequate” or “requires improvement” grading, inspectors can visit more frequently.

Can Ofsted shut a school down?

Yes, but after a lengthy process. For any service that has been judged as inadequate and placed in a category of concern, inspectors will visit the academy to check on its progress until it can be removed from the category.

Schools placed in a “special measures” category will have two years to turn things around, while serious weaknesses schools have 18 months.

Why are inspections changing?

The changes come after the Early Years Alliance charity, which advocates for nurseries, preschools, and childminders, called for the inspection results from Ofsted to be reviewed. The inspection process for nurseries, pre-schools, and childminders is different from that for schools but they all obtain the same total grade.

The charity found that many schools found inspections to be stressful, according to their survey on early years’ staff. The survey found that 1,586 out of 1,708 surveyed staff said inspections were a source of stress “sometimes” or “often”. While 1,227 out of 1,601 would remove the single-word grading.

Ofsted said it wants inspections to be “as constructive as possible” and noted that “inspections can be challenging”.

The schools’ watchdog previously refused to drop one-word ratings despite calls for inspection reforms following Mrs Perry's death.

Critics say the one-word ratings are too simplistic while The National Education Union (NEU) is calling for the grading system to be replaced with a “supportive, effective and fair” accountability system.

Ruth Perry, the former headteacher at Caversham Primary School in Reading, took her own life while waiting for the publication of a report into her school that was expected to downgrade it from “outstanding” to “inadequate”. Ms Perry’s family said the 53-year-old had described the inspection in November as the worst day of her life.