The Human Cost of Ofsted Inspections: A Tipping Point in Education

Terry Conway from Anti*Capitalist Resistance spoke to NEU activist Amanda Bentham after seeing photographs of her protesting against Ofsted across the media. Terry wanted to know how this had come about – and to explore the broader issues around the callous regime of inspections.


How come you have been all over the press in the last few days? How did that come about?

I’m a recently retired teacher of 30 years, a member of the National Education Union and the Socialist Educational Association, so I know from personal experience the terror of Ofsted and its pernicious impact on our education system.

In the wake of the publicity about the tragic death of Head teacher Ruth Perry, who took her own life in January following Ofsted’s downgrading of her school from ‘outstanding’ to ‘inadequate’, Twitter was buzzing with posts showing support and solidarity with her family and with Head teachers. One of them, written by Reading parent James Denny (@1candle3flames) last Wednesday (22 March) stood out for me – he was calling for a vigil for Ruth the next day, outside Ofsted HQ in Petty France, London.

I know from personal experience the terror of Ofsted and its pernicious impact on our education system.

As an activist I felt compelled to join the vigil. It just happened to coincide with the NEU’s delivery of a 45,000 signature petition to the DfE. James contacted the Deputy General Secretary Niamh Sweeney and we met the NEU deputation – and a scrum of news and photo journalists – at the DfE, before heading to Ofsted. 

The media interest was quite a surprise, but very welcome. The image of the three of us (James, myself and my partner George Binette, a seasoned trade unionist) with the three photos of Ruth and our placards calling for the abolition of Ofsted has made quite an impact.  I just hope it contributes to positive change and an end to the tyranny of Ofsted.

When you were talking to press association you mentioned a number of incidents where staff were clearly very stressed around inspections. I assume one of the points you were making is that while Ruth Perry’s suicide is a particularly devastating response to the stress of an inspection, it’s not something out of the blue?

Sadly we have since learned (from research by the Hazards Campaign and University of Leeds) that the stress caused by inspections has been cited in corners’ reports on the deaths of 10 teachers over the past 25 years. So Ruth’s family and school are among many to have suffered such a huge loss. 

The media coverage has seen a wave of school staff speaking out about the stress of Ofsted: colleagues suffering strokes and heart attacks during inspections; the mental health issues that result in wonderful educators being driven out of their jobs. But there is a huge societal impact that hasn’t been covered. 

Parents Against Ofsted poster

Ofsted was formed in 1992 in the wake of the 1988 Education Reform Act which began the process of simultaneously centralising and deregulating the education system, turning parents into consumers, bringing in the National Curriculum including SATs, GCSEs and league tables, forcing schools to compete with each other for funding. Ofsted is there to police the whole system.  It results in a narrowing of the curriculum, and an ‘exam factory’ approach.

Academisation has further driven this marketisation. And Ofsted is driving schools further out of democratic local oversight and accountability – a local authority school that ‘fails’ Ofsted can be turned over to the private hands of a MAT (Multi Academy Trust). And it is no coincidence that many CEOs of MATs are working directly for and with Ofsted.

You mention students being asked to stay at home – how common do you think this is? Do you think it is particularly targeted at students with additional needs?

This used to be done secretly by secondary schools I have taught in during an Ofsted inspection – sometimes a school ‘trip’ would even be organised to remove children and young people whose behaviour in class might disrupt lessons. It’s was open secret and yes, it likely has a greater impact on students with additional needs such as social, emotional and mental health. 

What is even more shocking is the rise in school exclusions which disproportionately effects children with SEND and black children. Off rolling is the unofficial version of this – pupils are removed from school rolls without any official process, usually because they aren’t going to get the grades that will help the school do well in the league tables. In November a Centre for Social Justice study ‘Out of Sight Out of Mind’ reported that nearly 2m children were regularly missing from school during the academic year 2020/21. The number of children ‘home educated’ has risen 34% since pre-pandemic. The report exposes the growing numbers that have been off-rolled or have just left formal education because it has become a hostile environment for so many.

Those that defend Ofsted focus on ‘parental choice’. What’s your experience of how important that is?

I do think parents have been encouraged to see Ofsted as the authority on school quality control. It’s part of the marketisation of education – competition rather than collaboration.  Some parents will inevitably look to the single word rating and may not read the rest or even visit the school.   But it has been exposed as a toxic body and its methods and reports are often deeply subjective and flawed. It’s great to see tweets from many Heads who have worked as part-time Ofsted inspectors – often to get an insight into the process that their own schools are subjected to. They are now quitting in high numbers. 

I do think parents have been encouraged to see Ofsted as the authority on school quality control. It’s part of the marketisation of education – competition rather than collaboration. 

Heads have also been responding to an appeal from Julia Waters, Ruth Perry’s sister, to remove banners proclaiming Ofsted ratings outside schools well as school websites. Julia has called on parents to stop considering these ratings when choosing schools. 

She is also pressing for a boycott of inspections, and the NEU and SEA want all inspections to be paused for a review of the system. Ofsted should be replaced by a fair and supportive system which is fully accountable.

In the wake of Ruth Perry’s death a school in Newbury tried to block an Ofsted inspection. How widespread do you think that sentiment is?

Has the impact of Ofsted got worse, or is this the straw that broke the camel’s back or have those of us outside education just not noticed it before?

This storm has been coming for years. There’s no doubt that Ofsted has become more powerful and damaging over time, but the NEU and the SEA have been calling for change for years. The turning point has come as a result of this one awful event, which has led to the exposure of the ridiculous pressure it places on everyone in schools.

During the height of the pandemic inspections were paused and schools continued doing what they do. The sky did not fall in. When they resumed there were lots of cases of inspectors telling school staff they simply weren’t interested in what had happened during and after lockdowns. They didn’t want to know about bereavements, about the impact of loss and isolation on the pupils and staff and the wider community. It was all about ‘catch up’ in learning without looking at the implications. This callousness is built into the system and it is now being exposed. Ofsted is not fit for purpose, it is not fit to judge us or our children or schools.  Educators have known this for some time, but now it is becoming public knowledge.

I think we have reached a turning point. Flora Cooper, the Head who initially refused Ofsted and called for people to demonstrate outside the school, was very brave to do so as inspections are a legal requirement. The fact that the inspectors entered the school building with a police escort is frankly horrific. I applaud the staff for standing in silence outside wearing black armbands in remembrance of Ruth Perry, and I hear that staff at many other schools under inspection are making similar protests. Change is coming!

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