It’s been a long time since the suicide of a teacher, linked to an Ofsted inspection, hit the headlines. So news of the death of Ruth Perry, the head teacher of Caversham Primary near Reading, was a terrible shock. Ruth, and her school, had gone through a two-day Ofsted inspection in November 2022, which in spite of overwhelming positive reporting, damned her school, and Ruth herself, with one word – “Inadequate”.
I was curious as to how Caversham Primary could receive such a negative assessment. So I downloaded their Ofsted report and read it.
The Ofsted Report
The report itself is a real puzzle. It devotes four pages to telling us how wonderful the school is. To put this in context, according to the Ofsted guidelines, five areas were looked at;-
- Quality of education
- Behaviour and Attitudes
- Personal Development
- Early Years Education
- Leadership and management
It starts in a very positive fashion with about three pages of praise and appreciation …
Quality of education – apparently Caversham’s pupils:
“… are doing well and are well prepared for the next stage … Clear routines and expectations mean that children in Reception get off to a strong start with their learning … They share, take turns and play together well“.
Behaviour and attitudes:
“Children’s behaviour is exemplary – they respect each other, are kind to each other and listen to each other. Relationships between staff and pupils are warm and supportive … Incidents of bullying are rare”.
“Children’s understanding about relationships with each other and the staff are warm and supportive and the children know how to stay safe, including on line.”
Early Years provision:
“Priority is given to early reading with sound phonics, maths programmes, English and wider subjects like History and PE.”
Ofsted also commented:
“Teachers adapt lessons to meet the needs of pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities …The children have many opportunities for personal development and has access to the wide range of visits, visitors, clubs and events that are available”.
This all tallied with parents’ comments. One parent, who echoed the sentiment of many, said:
“I am impressed with how happy my child is at the school. The staff are brilliant and caring, inspiring them to be the very best they can be”.
Sounds like school heaven to me.
But then on Leadership and Management the inspectors said:
“The teachers did not have the required knowledge to keep pupils safe, – they didn’t act quickly enough when pupils were ‘at risk’ … They have not ensured that safeguarding is effective throughout the school.”
All of this seems very much at odds with the happy, busy, focused school described elsewhere in the report. In fact, Ofsted noted that:
“Staff know how to identify concerns about pupils and to report these to the appropriate leader”.
“The pastoral support provided for pupils is a strength and they appreciate this level of care”.
“The school runs a breakfast and after-school care club for pupils who attend the school”.
“Incidents of bullying are rare”.
‘Safeguarding’ is a word that comes up a lot in Ofsted reports and refers to the Statutory guidance ‘Keeping children safe in education’, published by the Department of Education. This is mostly about child abuse, spotting the signs and who to report it to. Staff at Caversham Primary were criticised by the Ofsted inspectors for not having a detailed knowledge of these guidelines.
Two incidents are worth mentioning which call into question the inspectors’ ability to recognise child abuse. They observed a lad doing a “Flossing” dance, popularised by the video game Fortnite. They claimed it was “evidence of the sexualisation of children at the school“. They also stumbled across a playground scuffle between two children (probably about which football team was best), which they described as “child-on-child abuse“.
Also there is more to ‘Leadership and Management’ than the Government’s safeguarding guidelines. There is the security and safety that the school provides on a daily basis as part of what teachers see as their responsibility. There is the curriculum, matching tasks to ability, keeping a running assessment in your head as to ‘who is who and how are they doing’ and so much more.
So the inspectors praised the school in four of their five categories and in the fifth category they focused only on safeguarding and not the many other aspects needed to run a school. So to give a rating of ‘Inadequate’ is itself inadequate and potentially irresponsible.
The guidelines for Ofsted are that, if there is a failing in basic safeguarding to do with paperwork and governance (which was the case with Caversham Primary), then an “inadequate” rating is mandatory. Surely this too simplistic a way of assessing a school?
The school was reclassified by Ofsted as “inadequate” – just one damning word. In fact that judgement was delivered verbally on the first day of a two day inspection, which is itself highly unprofessional. According to Pam Jarvis’ recent article in Yorkshire Bylines, ‘Toxic Schools’, she describes what would have followed:
“When the report was published, she would be summarily dismissed and replaced by a substitute caretaker whilst a new head teacher was sought”.
That must have left the school reeling from a damning one word description and the sudden disappearance of a much loved head teacher. The deflation, loss of professional confidence, the negative effect on the children must have made it seem as if their world had fallen apart.
Pam goes on to add:
“In the interim, she was trapped within the standard OFSTED process which forbids head teachers discussing their school’s report with anyone prior to publication, including their families.”
So for two months Ruth was gagged, with no-one to whom she could unburden herself.
Why does it take a team of three people, two months to write a 2000 word report?
Ofsted – the theory … and the practice
Ofsted has four mission statements for every school inspection.
- to inspire confidence in their work.
- to make a valuable contribution to the school’s improvement.
- to treat all those they meet with sensitivity.
- to do everything they can to minimise stress.
Judging by the one word “Inadequate” label of the Caversham report, their visit did none of the above. So on balance I would say that the inspection itself did not live up to its own standards.
There is at least one precedent to this sad incident. In an article dated Friday 14th April 2000, the TES recorded the:
“… suicide of experienced teacher Pam Relf whose lessons were criticised for ‘lacking in pace’”.
Chris Woodhead who was the Chief Inspector at the time, commented that he was:
“… sad that she wasn’t able to accept what Ofsted said about her lessons.”
The following week, April 21st 2000, another story appeared:
“4 deaths linked to inspections have been reported to the TES – As well as Pam Relf, there have been James Patton from Birmingham, Janet Watson from Northwich, and Jenny Knibb from Exeter.
At the present time Chris Woodhead has still not yet written to Pam Relf’s relatives.
Ofsted’s response to those teachers seems to imply that their deaths were a sign of weakness. Odd because being a teacher in a school demands an element of toughness that few others experience, except maybe nurses.
But on May 5th 2000, there was validation:
“… an enquiry upheld the complaints about the Ofsted inspection at Pam Relf’s school.”
To Sum Up
Ofsted is, to all intents and purposes, a self-regulating body. They make up the rules by themselves and for themselves. For example, under their own grading system, the Caversham judgement was “one area, inadequate – school inadequate”, to paraphrase Orwell’s 1984. It is a blunt simplistic tool to describe an infinitely complex organism – a school. Just because it is an Ofsted rule, doesn‘t make it right.
Judging by the “You will learn this, at this time and in this way” message from the National Curriculum and Testing regime, control seems to be their aim with indoctrination not education, their focus. Noam Chomsky, the American academic, revered in education for his work on Language, spotted that trend decades ago.
Ofsted is now making a bid for the nation’s Teacher Training programmes. Control the education system and you control what people learn and how they learn it. Thus eventually as generations of children are forced through this system, you control the way people think.
As I write, there is a petition gathering pace for an inquiry into the Caversham inspection. There is even a petition to replace Ofsted. There are many people who are fed up with what they see as a largely punitive and unforgiving system.
I have to conclude that Ofsted inspectors are not trying to make schools better, they are trying to make them conform – and the smallest step beyond those that don’t conform, they punish. Think Suella Braverman in ‘cap and gown’ in a classroom.
If that inspection hadn’t happened, in the way that it happened, perhaps Ruth Perry would be alive today.