Pressure mounts on Ofsted amid outcry after death of headteacher

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Pressure is mounting on Ofsted after the death of the Berkshire headteacher Ruth Perry, whose family have called for an urgent review of the schools watchdog, describing its inspection regime as “punitive” and “fatally flawed”.

The family intervention came as teachers and parents took part in a protest outside another Berkshire school that was expecting Ofsted inspectors on Tuesday morning, despite pleas from teaching unions to pause inspections amid the growing outcry.

Perry’s sister, Julia Waters, said her family were in no doubt she had taken her own life in January as a “direct result” of the pressure put on her by the process and outcome of the Ofsted inspection, which downgraded her school from outstanding to inadequate.

She added: “In our opinion, the findings of Ofsted were disproportionate, unfair and, as has tragically been proven, deeply harmful in their implied focus on one individual.”

School leaders elsewhere are also considering taking collective action in response to Ofsted inspections as a mark of solidarity. The Suffolk Primary Headteachers’ Association (SPHA) is discussing displaying a photograph of the late headteacher, wearing black armbands and starting inspections with a minute’s silence.

Rebecca Leek, SPHA executive director, told PA: “I think that Ruth’s death, that tragedy, has given people courage to speak out about things that they have been concerned about for a very long time.”

The death of Perry, 53, a headteacher at Caversham primary school in Reading, has prompted anger among teachers and headteachers, many of whom are highly critical of Ofsted and would like to see radical reform.

Flora Cooper, the executive headteacher at the John Rankin federation of nursery, infant and junior schools in Newbury, had said on Twitter on Monday that she planned to refuse Ofsted inspectors entry to her school in light of Perry’s death.

She later withdrew a request for outside support, but a small number of people gathered outside the school nonetheless and all the teachers – many of whom had been crying – emerged to hold a two-minute silence.

As the inspection went ahead, one parent of a year 6 pupil said: “Surely Ofsted could have been more sensitive and delayed coming for a few weeks to allow teachers to grieve and take stock? The headteacher showed remarkable courage in taking a stand and I hope that the school governors support her fully.”

Liz, a former teacher from Caversham, where Perry was head, said: “Flora showed the courage of her convictions and that if we don’t speak out nothing would ever change.”

On Ofsted, she said: “There needs to be a change in the system. It’s just like a spreadsheet they put data in and the data comes out, but actually we’re talking about children, families, teachers.”

Flora Cooper, a headteacher at the John Rankin federation, at the school gates
Flora Cooper, a headteacher at the John Rankin federation, at the school gates. Photograph: Antonio Zazueta Olmos/The Guardian

There is particular concern about headline judgments used by Ofsted in inspection reports – outstanding, good, requires improvement and inadequate – which Labour has promised to scrap, in favour of a report card system.

The inspection report at Perry’s school found it to be good in every category apart from leadership and management, where it was judged to be inadequate, taking the overall judgment down to the lowest category. A petition calling for an inquiry into the inspection has gathered more than 100,000 signatures.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the former chief inspector of schools, in England, Sir Michael Wilshaw, defended the inspectorate and the current grading system that he said helped raise standards and inform parents about the quality of a school.

“At the end of the day parents want to know, is this a school that’s good enough for my child to go to?” he said. “Ofsted has helped to raise standards over the last 30 years. We should be really proud of what has been achieved.”

In a statement issued on behalf of Perry’s family, Waters, who is professor of contemporary French literature at Reading University, paid tribute to her sister. “Ruth was a kind, dedicated, highly regarded headteacher of a happy, successful, popular primary school.

“Teaching had been her passion and vocation for 32 years. Under intolerable pressure from external scrutiny, she took her own life on 8 January 2023, leaving her family devastated.”

She acknowledged that the reasons behind someone’s taking their own life were never simple. “Nevertheless, we are in no doubt that Ruth’s death was a direct result of the pressure put on her by the process and outcome of an Ofsted inspection at her school.

“We do not for an instant recognise Ofsted’s ‘inadequate’ judgment as a true reflection of Ruth’s exemplary leadership or of the wonderful school she led selflessly for 12 years.”

Waters added: “We think some of the conclusions drawn by Ofsted inspectors were sensationalist and drawn from scant evidence, such as gaps in record-keeping and typical childish behaviour.

“No doubt the Ofsted inspectors did not mean to cause any harm. We are sure they were only doing their job as best they could under the appalling system that is in place. It is this fatally flawed system which is at fault. Our only hope is that Ruth’s sudden, appalling death will be the last to occur as a result of the intolerable pressures caused by the Ofsted system.

“It is the firm view of Ruth’s family, friends and colleagues that the entire Ofsted system must urgently be reviewed and changed, to place the welfare of teaching staff, as well as of schoolchildren, at its heart.”

Waters said that following the inquest the family hoped that recommendations would be made to prevent further tragedies from occurring. “In the meantime, we support anyone who cares about education in this country and wishes to drive forward rapid, far-reaching change to Ofsted’s punitive regime. School inspections should be a welcome and positive contribution to improve standards in education. But for this to happen, they need massive reform.”

Liz, the former Caversham teacher, echoed the family’s rejection of the use of the word inadequate in the Ofsted report at Perry’s school. “This one word that Ruth has been reduced to is entirely unfair, because the teachers wouldn’t stay in that school if she was inadequate. The parents wouldn’t keep sending the children to that school if she was inadequate. The teaching was good and the children felt welcome and safe there … so this Ofsted report is a farce really.”

Ellen, a former primary teacher, who now teaches yoga to children with special needs, was also outside John Rankin. “When our school went into special measures, Ruth came and mentored me. I know so many people who loved her so much. She always went above and beyond. It’s just so sad.”

Katherine, a former parent and art teacher, was also outside the school to show support. On Ofsted, she said: “It’s not about the kids, it’s about people who know how to tick the right boxes, rather than look after kids.”

Matthew Purves, Ofsted’s regional director for the south-east, said: “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.”

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