Ofsted inspectors not given set guidance on headteacher distress, inquest told

Ofsted inspectors were not given specific written guidance about what to do if a headteacher becomes distressed during an inspection, the inquest into Ruth Perry’s death has heard.

Ms Perry’s family say she took her own life after a report from the watchdog downgraded her Caversham Primary School in Reading from its highest rating to its lowest over safeguarding concerns.

Her sister, Professor Julia Waters, previously said Ms Perry had experienced the “worst day of her life” after inspectors reviewed the school on November 15 and 16 last year.

The inquest, at Berkshire Coroner’s Office on Monday, heard that there was one reference about managing stress in the guidance given to Ofsted inspectors before November 2022.

The guidance said that inspectors must take “all reasonable steps to prevent undue anxiety and manage stress” while conducting inspections.

Giving evidence to the inquest, Christopher Russell, Ofsted’s national director for education, agreed that there was no specific written guidance as to what an inspector should do if a headteacher becomes distressed.

However, he said: “We do feel that we train inspectors in a way that expects them to inspect in a way that minimises stress and anxiety.”

He added that the watchdog recruited inspectors “who work at a high level in the school system” and who would be experienced with managing stressful situations.

“When we train inspectors we certainly talk about how to manage the situation in a way that reduces stress,” he said.

Ahead of Mr Russell’s evidence, senior coroner Heidi Connor said she wanted to know if it really was possible to pause an Ofsted inspection, or if pausing was a “mythical creature”.

It comes after questions were raised at the inquest about whether it was possible to pause an inspection in a situation where a headteacher becomes distressed.

Ruth Perry inquest
The guidance said inspectors must take ‘all reasonable steps to prevent undue anxiety and manage stress’ while conducting inspections, the inquest into Ruth Perry’s death heard (Andrew Matthews/PA)

The inquest heard that inspectors were told that they could pause inspections for “public health or other reasons”.Mr Russell said inspections were paused last year for concerns including headteacher illness, stress or broken water pipes.

The inquest has heard that during the inspection Ms Perry “looked extremely distressed and upset”, and was unable to speak coherently within a few hours of the inspection starting.

Hugh Southey KC, on behalf of the family, asked Mr Russell if there was written guidance that inspectors should be aware of the impact of the inspection on headteachers’ mental health.

Mr Russell said that he was “not aware” of a statement to that effect.

He was also asked if there was written guidance that an inspection could be paused for mental health reasons.

Mr Russell said that the guidance “does not expressly say that”.

Ms Connor also told the inquest about evidence relating to the cause of Ms Perry’s death.

She said Ms Perry was found by police having hanged herself at an address in Reading on January 8 this year.

A statement from one of the officers said police found a diary belonging to Ms Perry, with entries ranging from November 14 2022 to January 6.

The coroner added that a post-mortem examination concluded that Ms Perry’s cause of death was hanging.

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