The tragic death of headteacher Ruth Perry, who committed suicide in the wake of an OFSTED inspection, has begun a debate about the role of OFSTED. The school, which had previously been graded as ‘outstanding’, was downgraded to ‘inadequate’, largely as a result of the inspectors’ views of ‘leadership and management’.

The response of OFSTED to the suicide of a 53-year-old who had spent 32 years of her life in the teaching profession has been only to repeat its mantra that school inspections are an important part of improving schools. The National Association of Head Teachers General Secretary Paul Whiteman called it a “watershed moment” and joined with others who argue it “cannot be right that we treat dedicated professionals in this way.”

OFSTED has not issued any kind of statement, although they amended the report that they had originally published with the word ‘deceased’ next to Ruth Perry’s name. The only explanation for the change in status was that it had been 13 years between inspections. But it is curious that, on all other aspects of the report, including quality of education, Caversham Primary School was rated as ‘good’.

Ruth’s family issued an emotionally charged statement in which they said: “As the many tributes to her from the broader school and Caversham community attest, Ruth cared deeply not just about academic results but also about the general well-being and happiness of the pupils and staff she taught and led. Caversham Primary was a very happy school under Ruth’s leadership and, despite the many challenges that always go with the role of Head, she was happy there too.”

Ruth Perry is not the first teacher driven to suicide by an inspection regime that is considered by many to be, in the words of the Suffolk Primary Headteachers Association, “a coercive and dangerous force”. The root cause is the shift from inspections as being about assisting teachers to a regime based on compliance with a set of government-imposed strictures.

One such statutory duty, and one in which the inspectors failed Cavershsam Primary School, was ‘safeguarding’. This advice is contained in a 179-page document from the Department of Education. The OFSTED report states: “The arrangements for safeguarding are not effective.” Yet earlier the report states: “Relationships between staff and pupils are warm and supportive. Incidents of bullying are rare.” The school had created its own leaflet to explain what bullying was and what pupils should do about it in 2022. Indeed, there seems little evidence that the school had a safeguarding issue or that they were not being proactive to ensure that pupils were safe within the school environment.

Out of 359 schools that had previously been rated as ‘outstanding’ 219 have since been downgraded. There is no evidence that OFSTED decided to destroy the reputation of schools previously considered ‘outstanding’, but their current regime is certainly doing so, whether intended or not. The majority of inspectors are headteachers which, on the face of it, would make them well-placed to be inspectors. However, it might also be noted that headteachers, these days, rarely do any actual teaching and are far more likely to be involved in the management of the school. Perhaps the inclusion of more “at the chalkface” teachers in the inspection process would give the system a less managerialist approach.

A major part of the problem is the assumption that schools should be run as businesses and the creeping marketisation of all aspects of public life. Schools are there for education, not to manage ever-decreasing budgets. Or at least they should be. What we are seeing is both the de-professionalisation of teaching and the failure of salaries to keep pace with inflation. Together with an increasing emphasis on schools being “well managed’ it really is no wonder that teachers are leaving the profession in droves and school heads are increasingly divorced from the classrooms they are supposed to manage. OFSTED inspections are motivated by an obsession with paperwork. They are time-consuming and stressful for everybody involved in them. There is little evidence that they have increased standards.

The UK education system may not be the worst in the world but is focused purely on achievement in a narrow range of examinations. This tragic outcome of an inspection has merely shone a light on an area of our public provision which is failing. Do we need a reformed OFSTED, or do we need a reformed education system?

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