WhackoAn anecdote I’ve a feeling I’ve recounted on here once before nevertheless seems apt for retelling at the moment; it came to me via my mother during her lengthy stint as a school dinner-lady. I remember her speaking of an Ofsted inspection at her place of employment, one which was telegraphed in advance to the headmaster; in preparation for this visit, he ensured all the school’s most troublesome pupils were absent for the duration, giving them a day-off in order that there wouldn’t be any disruptive incidents to affect the judgement of the inspectors as to whether the headmaster ran a tight ship or couldn’t control his kids. I’ve no doubt this is a common occurrence when so much of a school’s future fortunes hinge on the importance of a good Ofsted report, though the fact the stakes are so high – with staff members aware a school labelled ‘failing’ could provoke redundancies and leave it terminally incapable of turning things around due to the black mark against its name – means the strain can sometimes prove too much for those in the Ofsted firing line. Those like Ruth Perry, head teacher at Caversham Primary School in Reading.

As has been heavily publicised over the past week, 53-year-old Ruth Perry committed suicide in January, following an Ofsted inspection of her school; although the report wasn’t published until after her death, Ms Perry had been informed its findings downgraded Caversham Primary’s rating from Outstanding to Inadequate, though under Ofsted rulings was unable to inform her staff, having to carry that knowledge around in her head for 54 days. The sudden plummet down the chart is the nightmare of every head teacher, knowing full well the devastating effect such a fall can have on morale, careers and recruitment; the pressure of awaiting the Ofsted judgement, and the knowledge of how a bad report following an inspection has the power to completely redefine a school in terms of its reputation and the reputations of those who work there, evidently pushed Ruth Perry over the edge; but what her death has done is to prompt other head teachers with bad experiences of the somewhat callous attitude of Ofsted to emerge from the shadows and bring these experiences into the open.

What was described by Suffolk Primary Headteacher’s Association as a ‘Damoclean sword hanging over dedicated professionals for months and years on end’ is being blamed as a prime cause of Ruth Perry’s decision to take her own life by her family; however, it would appear this has been a dam approaching bursting point for a long time when it comes to head teachers anticipating negative findings from an organisation whose arrival at the school gates sounds more like a visit from the Gestapo. Ruth Perry’s sister has spoken of the two months between the Ofsted inspection and her sister’s suicide. ‘All during that process,’ says Julia Waters, ‘every time I spoke to her, she would talk about the countdown. I remember clearly one day her saying 52 days and counting.’ The picture painted is of head teachers in Ruth Perry’s position feeling as though they’re trapped on death row, crossing off the days until their date with the electric chair. I remember a headmaster at one of my schools used to keep a golf club in his office and practice putting; how times have changed.

That horrible term, ‘league tables’, seemed to materialise in relation to schools during the New Labour era, applying the Thatcherite notion of so-called healthy competition to the classroom; education, education, education, I suppose. But schools aren’t – or shouldn’t be like – football clubs, permanently engaged in promotion or relegation battles, on tenterhooks awaiting Ofsted grading as though it equated with a do-or-die last game of the season and being downgraded was akin to dropping from the Premier League into the Championship. Those running schools in less affluent areas on a shoestring budget, for example, have routinely complained repeatedly negative Ofsted grading makes their task even more difficult; and parents who vigorously study league tables with the same manic intensity as some study the form of racehorses will naturally choose the champions for their precious child over a school struggling in the bottom three. In one sense, it appears to have created a two-tier system within state education, with schools receiving the coveted ‘Outstanding’ grade having far more applicants than they can accommodate and those given the thumbs-down reduced to a dumping ground for children whose parents aren’t prepared (or aren’t financially able) to play the ‘catchment area’ lottery.

Ofsted is ‘tin-eared’, showing ‘scant regard for the wellbeing of schoolteachers’ according to the President of the National Association of Head Teachers; amidst calls by teaching unions for Ofsted inspections to be temporarily suspended, a former registered inspector for Ofsted called John Bold didn’t mince his words on ‘Today’ this morning, delivering a damning verdict on the system and the ‘limiting judgement’’ tactic – i.e. one-word summaries of the inspected school as either Outstanding, Good, Requires Improvement or Inadequate – he blames for leading to Ruth Perry’s suicide; he believes inspections should continue though there should be ‘an immediate and radical change’. He went on to say, ‘Labour created this botched framework and the Conservatives have failed to improve it…the Department for Education does not have the skills or knowledge to regulate schools; it’s putting people who don’t understand the work in charge that has led us to this position…(the system) is producing unreliable and misleading – and in this case fatal – reports; and the reason I’m angry about this is that I know from my own experience and temperament that this could have happened to me if I’d been on the end of an ill-informed and unfair report.’

When asked what he himself thought should be done to improve the system, Mr Bold replied, ‘The first thing that needs to happen is the idea of a limiting judgement needs to be removed instantly so that a school is judged on its merits and inspectors make a properly balanced judgement. This is a seriously misleading report and should not have happened; it’s been building up for about 17 years and it must change; the DFE does not have the skills to regulate schools. It does not know how to do it; these are civil servants, they don’t have the teaching experience. I’m unusual as an inspector – I’m a teacher primarily, not a manager.’ The National Education Union has echoed Mr Bold’s sentiments by handing in a petition at Downing Street demanding the Government replaces Ofsted, though Amanda Spielman, chief inspector of Ofsted, has remained resolute in her belief that inspections are necessary and important, despite the open criticism of the system from the teaching profession in the wake of Ruth Perry’s death.

The tragic case of Ruth Perry has certainly lifted a lid on a world most outside of the teaching profession were largely ignorant of. School inspections are nothing new, of course, but the increased significance to schools of Ofsted findings and the obsession with league tables seem to have transformed education into a business, which it surely shouldn’t be. Ruth Perry wasn’t the CEO of a company competing for contracts with rival firms; she was a teacher, something she apparently regarded as a vocation for the 32 years it constituted her working life. I doubt Alan Sugar has ever viewed what he does as a vocation, yet one gets the feeling schools are now looked upon by many in government and at the Department for Education as if they were indistinguishable from industry. For most reading this – and indeed for the author – school days were quite some time ago and conducted in environments that would be thought of as Victorian to the majority of today’s school-kids, not to mention teachers; but anyone who made it through that system with the intention of improving it by entering the teaching profession and rising up the ranks probably couldn’t have foreseen how all their hard work could eventually be undone by one word.

© The Editor




3 thoughts on “COULD DO BETTER

  1. A cynic may ask how many of the currently protesting heads are from ‘outstanding’ schools, one may suspect not many.

    Given the diverse ‘business’ represented by education, it is vital that some form of quality audit is carried out, that’s the job of OFSTED, whether their current methodology is the most appropriate is the question raised. In my working days I occasionally shared hotels with groups of OFSTED inspectors and, based on my dinner-table eaves-droppings, I may have had some reservations about the qualities demonstrated by their troops in the field.

    It is also valid to question the weighting given to various attributes of a school and also the process of rendering the overall result into such a simplistic form as just four categories. Why not, like traditional school reports, mark them out of 10 or 100, that would give far greater granularity to reflect the grey-scale encompassing all schools – parents are generally bright enough to understand that.

    I know from another profession that the outcome of their OFSTED-equivalent includes additional benefit if they provide electric car-charging points in the car-park – a feature which has absolutely zero effect on the quality of service provided to their users but which satisfies another agenda quite separate from that. Is that fair?

    Tragic though the suicide of Ruth Perry was, most managers in most professions have to live with audit processes, which can have serious effects on careers, but that goes with the territory – if you can’t stand the heat, maybe you shouldn’t have applied to be in that particular kitchen.

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    1. The Ofsted grading system certainly sounds in need of an overhaul; reducing a review to a simple ‘Outstanding’, ‘Good’, ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’ is like assessing a potential relationship using the glib ‘Snog, Marry, Avoid’ approach; fine for the gormless vocabulary of reality TV, but not so helpful out there in the real world.


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