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.
This is important. It is the first time a coroner has given this verdict. There is scarcely any record or statistics for the thousands of staff and many heads who have suffered serious distress after critical reports. There have been other premature deaths as a result of a bad inspection; the Observer quotes 10 other known deaths.
Nearly all heads that get an inadequate verdict lose their jobs immediately and have little or no chance of finding another senior job or even teaching at any level. Staff who fail teaching observations during Ofsted inspections usually enter some sort of competence procedure and often have their careers ended. Heads of departments found to be ‘failing’ are similarly blighted.
The New Labour government supported the launch of Ofsted, the official inspection system, in 1992. It replaced the local authority inspectorate, which was allied to a smaller national inspector team. The two teams used to work together to improve school teaching and learning. Reports by them were not publicised in the way that Ofsted reports are today. Although not perfect, the teachers definitely had confidence in it and felt that their input was a positive spur to school improvement.
Origins of Ofsted
Ofsted was started for several reasons. The option for schools to become academies and opt out of local authority accountability was a direct attack on local authority control. Margaret Thatcher’s approach to public services was to cut them to the bone but also impose a business model on how they operated. Competition between schools would improve quality. Parental choice would boost good schools and close bad ones. Exam results and data become the main criteria for judging schools as though they were businesses producing tins of baked beans. Parental choice over which school their child went to was imposed against fairer local authority allocation.
In order to supposedly provide parents with useful data, Ofsted was there to give them astonishingly summary judgements: outstanding, good, satisfactory, poor (later inadequate). If a school did not reach at least satisfactory levels, it was placed in special measures and followed very closely. A new management team was usually designated, and an action plan was established with re-inspection at regular intervals.
I trained as an Ofsted inspector, although I never did any actual inspections. It was considered useful for the head of school to go through the training. The whole doctrine was that schools had no excuses in terms of their social or class context. Schools in deprived areas often had tremendous difficulty getting well-qualified, motivated staff. The numbers of special needs students with behavioural issues vary greatly from school to school and are again usually greater in poorer areas. Pupils can progress more slowly if they use English as a second language or are in refugee families. Boys, girls, or mixed schools have different dynamics. None of these factors are taken into account when judging schools.
In order to respond to these sorts of criticisms, Ofsted came up with the value-added analysis, where the data in a school is used to see the distance travelled from different starting points. Theoretically, this means if you have students starting out in Year 7 with low attainment levels, then if they progress well, they can show their school is doing better than one that reaches the same attainment levels in Year 9 or 11 but has an intake with higher attainment. However, this still does not take account of differential staffing issues or the quality of comparative data. Distance travelled does not happen at the same rate all along the axis. What do we mean by comparative data? Are all schools using the same data?
I remember very well at head teacher conferences and in informal conversation that the key to getting your value-added data up to scratch was to play the system.
Gaming the System
One ruse was to find the exam boards that students found easiest, with the best results. A head in Telford became a big star because he devised with his staff a Year 11 qualification that provided you with 4 A to C grades. Not only that, but it was all based on in-school continuous assessment. Compare this with a student doing an exam based on German.
The take-up of the Telford ICT GCSE was huge, and the school also made a huge amount of money through their regular training sessions. Other exam boards pitched in with BTec equivalents that gave you 4 or 5 GCSEs. Competing, privatised exam boards make this all possible. Such entrepreneurial headship flourishes, though, to this day, with Academy federations operating like corporate businesses across the country.
Another trick was to massage your rolls. This meant getting what people called their ‘no hopers’ off the school roll. Students with no chance to get the magic baseline of 5 A to C GCSEs were encouraged to join off-site centres or ‘encouraged’ under a not-too-discreet threat of expulsion from home school. Hiding difficult pupils during an inspection was another ploy.
If your school became popular, you could improve further by organising CAT (cognitive assessment tests) entrance tests. These were taken on a Saturday, which meant you could choose equal numbers from the different levels to meet your intake needs. The beauty of this manoeuvre was that the most motivated parents took advantage of this process so that even students scoring lower would usually reach a good added value. Schools with falling rolls (often after a poor Ofsted) would never achieve a balanced intake of new students. If your school was doing well, you were also allowed to take on extra students, provided you squared this with your local education authority (LEA). Academies had the whip hand over the LEAs. As you might imagine, these ‘extra’ students were taken from the top-performing cohort in the CATS tests.
Ofsted inspectors rarely took into account the state of the building, the facilities in your school, or how tight your budget was compared to other schools.
The difficulty of comparability means the one-word summary completely simplifies a much more complex reality. In the case of Ruth Perry, she apparently failed the safeguarding procedures. Her school’s grades in other categories were fine. Nobody questions the importance of safeguarding, but to give an inadequate answer when, unlike with teaching and learning issues, it can be quickly turned around is absurd. Sometimes schools fail safeguarding through problems with paperwork or a staff vacancy. In the event her school went from inadequate to ‘good’ in a few months once the safeguarding had been sorted, unfortunately, that was too late to save Ruth’s life.
Rigorous comparability also applies to judgements on the quality of teaching. Everyone knows that teaching a good lesson to a ‘difficult’ class is much more difficult than to a better-behaved, more motivated one. During an inspection, it really is the luck of the draw as a teacher which class you are inspected in. I knew my teachers pretty well, and I saw the same teacher perform differently in different classes. Every teacher will accept this obvious fact. Ofsted inspectors make no attempt to factor this in. They are in school for two days, and it really is a snapshot, which can miss a lot of the reality.
The current system also blights schools. Once your school is given an inadequate grade, it becomes very difficult to recruit students or staff. I experienced this at Islington Green School. This was the local school that Tony Blair refused to send his children to. Rather unsurprisingly, after that, it failed its Ofsted.
The High Cost of Failure
Relating to the stress that Ofsted places on leaders and staff, I have firsthand experience with this. The first Ofsted inspection I experienced as a head of school got a good grade. A couple of years later, it became ‘satisfactory’. One big factor was the lack of progress in maths, a core subject. We had had desperate problems recruiting a maths head of department and qualified maths teachers. I had also not spotted in time the need to switch exam boards; we were doing the one that produced fewer top grades. Of course, there were other issues; nobody is perfect. However, despite not leading a failing school, I was out on my ear.
I still have never returned to the school or even communicated with it. I try to block out those awful moments spent with quite an unsympathetic lead inspector. You do feel you have failed in some way and let your team or school down. Your sleep is affected, and you go over and over in your mind what you could have done differently. I have never really wanted to write about it publicly until now, but I think we owe it to colleagues like Ruth Perry to speak out about a failed system.
Luckily for me, I found another area of work to happily end my professional career. I suppose being a bit political and having experience outside the education bubble helped me ‘objectify’ my situation.
During the Perry inquest, Ofsted was found to have been economical with the truth when they claimed that inspectors were given guidance about matters relating to the well-being of heads and other staff. Amanda Speilman, the head of Ofsted, has finally made some sort of apology. Previously, she claimed death had been “used as a pivot to try and discredit” Ofsted. Ofsted has been discredited, which is a good thing too.
We should also salute the courage and campaigning of the Perry family, particularly her sister. Disgracefully, the family was denied legal aid. £50,000 was raised through crowd funding. Surely it is proven in this case that legal aid would have undoubtedly led to a result that improves the public good. The way it reads now implies they actually received he aid, which they didn’t. Thanks in advance for making these changes.
Time for Change
Finally, this year Labour, who have never fundamentally criticised Ofsted as a body, has said that the one-word judgements would be replaced by a report card system to inform parents. Reform will be carried out in consultation with schools and Ofsted. However, there appears to be no return to inspectors based on local LEA accountability, so how thorough such reform will be is open to question. Decisive campaigning and action by the teacher unions will be key to having an inspection system based on school improvement and support.
Resolving educational underachievement requires an overall assault on the gross inequality that our capitalist society reproduces. Labour has set itself against any such change with its adherence to the Tory and business definitions of fiscal rules. Starmer’s magic grail of growth will not automatically reduce class inequality.
There must be a better way. The stakes are too high and the risk to schools, teachers and headteachers is too great. Ofsted inspections must now be paused until we can create a culture of accountability and caring.Statement of a head whose school was recently inspected.
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