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Ofsted inspection contributed to headteacher’s suicide, coroner rules

<span>Photograph: Brighter Futures for Children</span>
Photograph: Brighter Futures for Children

The family of Ruth Perry have spoken out against the “brutal inhumanity” of Ofsted inspections after a coroner ruled that it was a contributory factor in the headteacher’s death by suicide.

Heidi Connor, the senior coroner for Berkshire, said Perry’s suicide was “contributed to by an Ofsted inspection carried out in November 2022” at the school that she led.

Describing the inspection as at times “rude and intimidating”, Connor concluded that “during and after this inspection, Ruth’s mental health deteriorated significantly” before she took her own life on 8 January 2023.

Perry had been headteacher at Caversham primary school in Reading for 13 years when it was rated “inadequate” by inspectors. Colleagues and family members told the inquest that meetings with Ofsted inspectors left her so distressed that at times she was unable to speak.

Related: ‘Dark thoughts’: how Ruth Perry’s resolve fell apart after Ofsted visit

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, said in response that the organisation would pause school visits in England at the start of next week to carry out urgent training for its lead inspectors on dealing with anxiety and when to pause inspections.

Spielman also apologised to Perry’s family and the community “for the distress that Mrs Perry undoubtedly experienced” following Ofsted’s inspection of her school. “The coroner highlighted a number of areas of concern. We will work hard to address each of these as soon as we can,” she said.

Speaking on behalf of the family, Perry’s sister, Julia Waters, said: “The inquest into Ruth’s death has shown the brutal inhumanity of the system of Ofsted inspections. Ofsted likes to judge people with single-word labels. We could judge the current Ofsted system with our own labels: callous, perverse and inhumane.”

Waters said the family had no confidence that Ofsted was willing to make the “widespread, root-and-branch reforms” required, and added: “If I need to, I will continue to hold Ofsted to account. I will continue meeting with the secretary of state for education and the next chief inspector [of Ofsted, Martyn Oliver] to ensure that radical changes will be applied.”

Connor highlighted the lack of training and guidance given to Ofsted inspectors on the impact inspections have on school staff, and that it had no policies at that time that allowed inspections to be paused in the event of staff distress.

“Ofsted gave evidence under oath that they have paused inspections before for reasons of headteacher distress. I heard no direct evidence of this, and I am afraid I have to wonder what the level of distress must have been in those cases for such an action to be taken. It is clear that there is no guidance or training in this respect,” Connor said.

Connor said she planned to issue a report aimed at preventing future cases such as Perry’s, and warned: “There is a risk of future deaths if there is only lip service paid to learning from tragedies like this.”

Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, said: “It is clear from the coroner’s findings that lessons need to be learned. We have worked closely with Ruth’s family as well as with Ofsted to introduce key reforms and further support for our school leaders. I am extremely grateful to Ruth’s sister, Julia, and her friends for working so closely with us to introduce these changes.”

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, called the coroner’s verdict “a clear and damning indictment” of the harm done by Ofsted’s inspections. He said: “Ofsted and government have so far refused to take seriously the lessons that need to be learned from this case, or to listen properly to our warnings or the experiences of the school profession. They must now start working with us on the changes that need to be made.”

The coroner also drew attention to the Perry family being denied legal aid, saying they would have been at a “significant disadvantage” without legal representation.

After their application for legal aid was turned down, the family raised more than £50,000 through crowdfunding. Waters thanked those who had donated and spoke of “the injustice of a legal aid system which refuses to support a bereaved family, even when facing three public bodies whose substantial legal costs are paid for by the taxpayer”.

• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. 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 www.befrienders.org.