That Ofsted is “Not fit for purpose” was confirmed by this conclusion of the ‘Beyond Ofsted’ Inquiry: “Ofsted is in urgent need of review”. The Inquiry was prompted by the public outcry after the death of head teacher Ruth Perry following the Ofsted Inspection of Caversham Primary School in December 2022. The ‘inadequate‘ assessment of the school, the contradictions in the inspection report and the way the inspection was conducted, all contributed Ruth Perry taking her own life.
At the time I wrote this article on the inspection itself.
Professor Julia Waters, Ruth Perry’s sister, wasn’t quite so diplomatic as the Inquiry. She wants them to “hand in their badges”. Considering this latest tragedy, the trail of inspection-related suicides since 2000, teachers’ ill-health, retirements and resignations, perhaps Professor Waters is right.
The Department for Education’s (DfE’s) response to the Inquiry’s findings was as predictable and self-righteous as it was meaningless:
“Ofsted has a crucial role in providing a regular, independent evaluation of every school.”
This completely ignores the Inquiry’s criticisms.
The report itself can be accessed here. On pages 30-32, huge numbers of teachers think that:
• Inspections increase stress levels.
• Inspections increase workload.
• Inspections disempower teachers.
• Inspections ignored teachers’ concerns.
• Overall, Inspections are a negative experience.
And the Inquiry concluded [page 33] that:
“… the problem of a lack of trust in the inspectors and their frequently interrogative approach to the process turned the inspection into a performance or a game, rather than a supportive collaboration to improve practice.”
At least ten teacher suicides have been linked to Ofsted inspections since Ofsted was first forced on the world of education in 1992. The first was in January 2000, when Pam Relf, her school’s most senior teacher with 36 years’ experience, jumped into a freezing cold river to end her life after the Ofsted team said “her lessons lacked pace”.
Some 22 years and another eight tragedies later, Ruth Perry took her own life after being told halfway through a two-day inspection that the school was to be judged inadequate. To make that remark before the inspection was complete was irresponsible to say the least. To deliver a report which went overboard to say how wonderful they thought the school was in almost every department, and then label it ‘inadequate’ raises questions the competence and professionalism of Ofsted.
But the Ofsted inspectors really shot themselves in the foot when, observing two boys in a playground scuffle – probably about football – they claimed that this was evidence of “child-on-child abuse”. The depth of their arrogance and ignorance is breath-taking.
Sadly, Ruth had an additional, almost impossible burden, to bear. According to Dr Pam Jarvis, an educationist with our sister newspaper Yorkshire Bylines, labelling the school ‘inadequate’ means the immediate removal of the head teacher and the appointment of another in her place. That would have left Ruth’s career in tatters. Yet, Ofsted acknowledged in the report that the children loved coming to school, loved and respected Ruth as did the staff and parents, that the teaching was first class and so was the pastoral care. This alone renders the Ofsted inspection something of a contradiction.
In case you are thinking that maybe teachers are too soft and sensitive, let me disillusion you. Teaching is one of the hardest and most exhausting jobs you can do, alongside nursing. It can require lightning-quick responses to new situations and infinite patience with 30 children, all with different needs and personalities making excessive demands on your powers of observation and adjusting the curriculum to suit those conditions.
It’s hard to believe that Pam Relf took her own life just because of the label “lacking pace”. Dr Jarvis quotes a head teacher saying that “Ofsted bullying might be intentional”. An ‘Anonymous Headeacher’ writing in Yorkshire Bylines describes her “terrible experience” of being judged “inadequate” by an Ofsted inspection. All this will have added to the distress of Relf and the others. Ofsted’s mission is to inspire schools to improve not to bully them into submission.
Looking back at my own personal experience, the inspector who visited me hadn’t checked which lesson or which age group he was observing, stayed for about ten minutes, without, as far as I could see, looking at the children or my lesson notes.
What happened to me isn’t unique. There has been a general dissatisfaction with Ofsted for almost the whole of its existence. The Inquiry said Ofsted had “lost the trust of the teaching profession, and increasingly of parents” (page 6). That is a damning indictment of an organisation that is supposed to help schools.
What always bewilders me is why Ofsted is needed at all. Just stop a minute and think about this. Teachers spend their lives assessing children. They spend every day watching out for them, making sure they are ok. I still do it and I’m retired. It’s so ingrained a habit that it is hardly conscious. When children have difficulty with something, the teacher’s task is to find a way of overcoming that difficulty – often by a slightly changing their approach, to adapt to their children’s needs.
As for teacher performance, teachers are, naturally, all too prone to criticise themselves, and too reluctant to appreciate their strengths. Way back in the early 90s, local education authorities were asked to create systems of assessing teachers but were given the freedom to produce their own version.
Some were very formal and top down like Westminster. Others were more practical, more teacher and education oriented. Bradford’s ‘Appraisal’ scheme was one of these. It was a collaborative teacher-led process with the stress on the ‘praise’ bit. It was also a working partnership between the teacher and their more experienced head of department or head of year. It was based around job description, school curriculum policy, achievability, relevance and the subject matter being tackled. See Department of Education and Science (DES) circular December 1991 School Teacher Appraisal particularly paragraph 18, and Judith Johnson Appraisal Development Coordinator Bradford Metropolitan District Council 1989-91.
It involved conversations with a more senior and experienced teacher, but where the opinions of both were equally valued. It involved selecting aims, methods, reviewing sessions, further courses perhaps, with the senior teacher making suggestions where appropriate. Basically it was what teachers did informally every day, sharing their experiences with other teacher and talking over problems.
It also involved weekly communication between the two teachers, keeping each other abreast of the progress and their own current thinking. At the end of the Appraisal process, there was an evaluation of its success, where it could be improved and some thoughts about where the teacher might want to develop next. It was a co-operative endeavour.
It gave the teachers a sense of agency and a great sense of achievement from driving their own development. It motivated and inspired people to improve. As for ‘value for money’, which politicians are always bleating about as they waste huge sums of public money on a daily basis, it was unbeatable. It didn’t cost anything extra. It was designed to be part of the teachers’ role.
The “Beyond Ofsted” report (page 33) describes Ofsted’s stance as:
“… turning the inspection into a performance or a game, rather than a supportive collaboration to improve practice”.
Ironically, “a supportive collaboration” describes the Bradford Appraisal process, perfectly.
I know all this because I was one of Bradford’s Appraisal trainers. I trained and co-trained about 40 Bradford schools and there was a consistently positive and enthusiastic response, even during the initial training days. They could see the possibilities even though it had never been tried before.
But the initiative lasted almost no time at all. The government could see that this put the teachers squarely in charge of their own professional development and, by inference, the children’s development. This was an anathema to the government, so the idea was quietly dropped. When enough time had passed for everyone to forget the whole thing, they introduced Ofsted – the latest in a long line of controlling mechanisms – LMS, SATs, league tables. There has been trouble ever since.
The Wikipedia entry for Ofsted quotes annual funding of £130mn (2018) and £168mn (2013 and 2022). Assuming £150mn for the 30 years since 1992 that’s an investment £4.5bn. For what? That’s £4,500,000,000 on a toxic organisation that’s “not fit for purpose”.
Now there are rumours that Ofsted is bidding to be the sole provider of teacher training (for example: Schools Week July 2023). Their ideology is about as far away from the philosophy of child development and learning as you can get. Their dictatorial, prescriptive and manipulative attitude is totally unsuited to any kind of responsible position – never mind teacher training.
The report was called ‘Beyond Ofsted’. I suggest we take it literally. Let Ofsted go. Disband it. Put school teacher and children’s development where it should be – with the professionals, the teachers in other words. It’s time we left this dark punishing Ofsted cloud behind us, There are better, more productive, more humane ways to keep our teachers safe and help our children learn.
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