Pressure mounts on Ofsted as school staff show solidarity with late headteacher

Pressure is mounting on Ofsted as schools across the country show their support for headteacher Ruth Perry, who took her own life while waiting for the publication of a negative inspection report.

Teachers at John Rankin School in Newbury, Berkshire – where the headteacher had planned to refuse Ofsted inspectors entry but then reversed her decision – wore black armbands outside the school on Tuesday.

Parents and former teachers at the school gates criticised Ofsted as the inspection got under way – and one protester called the process “cruel”.

Now primary school leaders in Suffolk are meeting to decide whether to take “collective action” during Ofsted inspections in solidarity with Ms Perry.

The Suffolk Primary Headteachers’ Association (SPHA) will discuss displaying a photograph of the late headteacher when inspectors visit schools, wearing black armbands and starting inspections with a minute’s silence.

It follows the death of Ms Perry, headteacher at Caversham Primary School in Reading, who killed herself in January while waiting for an Ofsted report which gave her school the lowest rating, her family said.

Professor Julia Waters, Ms Perry’s sister, said the watchdog’s report was “deeply harmful” in its “implied focus on one individual”.

The inspection report, published on Ofsted’s website on Tuesday, found the school to be “good” in every category apart from leadership and management, where it was judged to be “inadequate”.

A version of the report on the school’s website refers to a change of leadership “following the death of the headteacher who was in post at the time of the inspection”, but Ofsted’s report does not mention her death.

It is understood the line was removed from the finalised Ofsted report following a reflection on the sensitivities.

A petition calling for an inquiry into the inspection of Caversham Primary School has more than 128,000 signatures.

Meanwhile, three unions representing teachers and headteachers have urged Ofsted to pause inspections this week.

Ofsted protest
Headteacher Flora Cooper, wearing a black armband, stands next to a photograph of Ruth Perry as she closes the school gate at John Rankin Schools in Newbury, Berkshire (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Rebecca Leek, executive director of the Suffolk Primary Headteachers’ Association (SPHA), said on Tuesday: “We will be considering today if there is anything we want to think about in terms of collective action together.”

She told the PA news agency: “I have had strength of feeling from headteachers who would be prepared to do something.

“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.”

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “This shows the strength of feeling among leaders and teachers over the death of Ruth Perry and the desperate need for reform of an inspection system which is far too harsh and punitive.”

On Tuesday, some teachers at John Rankin School walked out to the school gates for a photograph wearing black armbands, and then later on executive headteacher Flora Cooper welcomed pupils also wearing a black armband.

Liz, a former teacher mentored by Ms Perry who held a placard saying “RIP Ruth” outside the Newbury primary school, said the inspection process caused “incredible amounts of stress”.

Jelena, who has a child at John Rankin Junior School, said she was backing Ms Cooper against “intensely cruel” Ofsted inspections, and she added that the system was “antiquated and needs a complete reform”.

The protest came after Ms Waters suggested a number of actions could be taken by school staff in memory of her sister Ms Perry – including wearing black armbands when inspectors are on site.

In a statement on behalf of her family, Ms Waters said some of the Ofsted inspectors’ conclusions were “sensationalist” and “drawn from scant evidence”.

She said her sister died “under intolerable pressure from external scrutiny”.

Ms Waters said: “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.”

The family rejects Ofsted’s judgment of Ms Perry’s leadership and they are calling for the system to be reviewed and changed to focus on the welfare of teaching staff and pupils.

“We support anyone who cares about education in this country and wishes to drive forward rapid, far-reaching change to Ofsted’s punitive regime,” Ms Waters added.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “There is clearly an extremely strong sense of hurt and anger amongst school leaders, and a determination that urgent reform is required when it comes to school inspection.

“This is not something that is new, but recent tragic events have certainly brought things to a head.

“It is essential that Ofsted and the Department for Education (DfE) listen to what educational professions are saying – now is the time for change.”

An inquest into the headteacher’s death will take place at Berkshire Coroner’s Court later this year.

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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