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Ofsted verdict: ‘Requires improvement’

09 June 2023

After the death of a head teacher, Rachel Farmer asks others for their thoughts on Ofsted


Three members of the Unison union (left to right), James Denny, George Binette, and Amanda Benthan, hold photographs of Ruth Perry outside the Department for Education in Westminster in March. They handed in a petition signed by 45,000 people calling for reforms to the Ofsted inspection regime

Three members of the Unison union (left to right), James Denny, George Binette, and Amanda Benthan, hold photographs of Ruth Perry outside the Departm...

THE death of the head teacher Ruth Perry, who took her own life in January after a school inspection (Comment, 24 March), has put the education watchdog Ofsted into the spotlight, and there have been calls for the system to be scrapped.

Teaching professionals have spoken out about what has been described as the “relentless and intense” process of inspections, and the damage that it does to heads and other school staff.

I talked to two Church of England primary-school heads, and found both anger and sadness at what had happened. They recounted their own experiences of Ofsted inspections, and suggested ways in which they would like to see the system changed. Both asked to remain anonymous, and I have given them assumed names.

“The stakes are too high,” Mr Smith said. He has spent 22 years as a head, and has endured many Ofsted inspections in that time.

“The amount of monitoring at the moment is ridiculous. It’s a big public sledgehammer to crack a nut. Ruth Perry was the first to commit suicide — and they’ll be others to follow. I don’t doubt that for a minute.”

He said that he had been reduced to tears after one visit from HM Inspectors. “It feels very personal. Heads almost become their school. And, when the inspectors criticise your school, it feels that they are having a go at you.

“I’m one of those mad head teachers who likes to take on ‘Requires improvement’ schools. I’ve done that twice now: I like the challenge. We want to leave the schools in a better place than we’ve found them, and I’ve done that in all the schools I’ve been in.

“But I don’t feel I need an Ofsted regime to come for two days, to crawl all over me and tell me what I’m doing well, because I know that already. For me, I would rather have the local authority or, soon to be, the Academy to work with me on a weekly or half-termly basis.”

Mr Smith, who is a few years off retirement, says that he will go early rather than face another Ofsted inspection. “It is going to shorten my career, because I won’t do another Ofsted. I won’t put my body through it, because I know it doesn’t do me any good. At the weekend, I know how I feel after a 60- or 70-hour week: I am on my knees. I am just exhausted.”

He said that he would like to see Ofsted scrapped and replaced by local inspections. He is a fierce critic of the current school curriculum, too, and believes that this is also being shaped by Ofsted, and is getting in the way of helping children to learn in more creative and positive ways.

“I think Ofsted is not fit for purpose. They are constantly saying: ‘Dig deeper, dig harder, dig faster.’ They want you to run a business model, and fire the inadequate teachers, but, legally, you can’t do that. They are asking you to do the impossible.”

Another primary-school head, Mrs Clark (not her real name), said that Ofsted existed to ensure that the children were getting the best deal. “Where the dilemma occurs is, as a leader, you’re always striving to get the best deal for the children, but, at the same time, getting the best for the teachers. As the latest union activity shows, the two don’t meet.”

Some of the issues with Ofsted, she said, were around not being certain where their lines of inquiry were going, and how the focus might change during the inspection.

She explained how heads received a call to tell them that an inspection was imminent. “After you have your 90-minute phone call with the lead inspector . . . the Ofsted team check out what has been said, and if it’s right or wrong. You identify subjects that are going to be looked at, and, in the middle of that process, their line of inquiry could change, based on one thing they have seen.”

The pressure of an Ofsted inspection, she said, was relentless and intense. “After you’ve had the call and you ring home, most families of heads and deputies would say, ‘Well, we’ll see you in three days’ time!’

“It makes you feel sick. It makes you feel really nervous — instead of feeling proud of your school and what you do. Head teachers are very humble human beings, and that phone call can trigger all of your doubts in one go. That is not the fault of the inspector.

“I think a better way would be more regular visits and more monitoring; if you are a ‘Requires improvement’ school, you have more monitoring visitors and smarter targets, and that becomes more meaningful.

“With Ofsted, it is a one-size-fits-all approach. Yet, inherently, schools are based on the uniqueness of the individuals within the setting.”


MR SMITH said that, over the years, the inspections had also changed. “You never know from one inspection to the next what they are looking for. It’s like a big political beach ball that they are kicking around.

“It is having a really negative effect on people’s well-being. Heads are retiring earlier and earlier, because they just don’t want to do it any more. I don’t feel we need this national body called Ofsted. I don’t think they really understand what schools have been through with lockdowns and everything; we’re still suffering from that. Children lost a lot of schooling, and 50 per cent of our children aren’t where they should be.”

Mrs Clark also said that, in 2019, the Ofsted framework had changed, which had added to the pressure on teachers. “That, coupled with Covid, has had an effect, and we are still feeling the ripples of how the pandemic affected teachers and children,” she agreed.

She believes that Ofsted is testing the right things, but that all schools depend on support from the local authority, which can vary enormously. “I feel very fortunate to be within a church school, because our diocese is incredibly supportive and challenging.”

Ofsted’s simple one- or two-word ratings for schools have also been criticised, and both heads agree that these are unhelpful. Mrs Clark advocates a longer statement to incorporate positives about the school, as well as what needs improving. She said that the “Requires improvement” rating had replaced “Satisfactory”, and a school could be described as “Requires improvement” if there was just one area in need of attention.

Mr Smith believes that it is wrong for people to judge a school with one word. “Their judgements are correct by their own criteria, but they don’t tell the whole story. Ofsted is a very blunt instrument for school improvement, when little miracles are happening every day. We haven’t turned from ‘Requires improvement’ to ‘good’ in a day.”

He, too, would prefer inspections to be done locally, by people who understand the context. “In the old days, the local authority knew their schools, and that isn’t the case any more. You want to make improvements, but it should be a community, working to improve together, not having people from outside.”

He is looking forward to a forthcoming SIAMS (Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools) inspection. This looks at the impact of a church school’s Christian vision in enabling pupils and adults to flourish. He hopes that the SIAMS outcomes will be more helpful than his experience of Ofsted, and that they could even model how Ofsted can be improved.

Talking about Ms Perry, he said: “It shows you how heads take things personally. If that had happened to me, I would have left, there and then. There is no way back for you after that. It is career-ending. . . You’ve got good-quality people who are leaving early because this is such high stakes.”

Mrs Clark said of Ms Perry: “She’s not the only one. She’s the one that’s hit the headlines recently. That’s the scary thing for head teachers. What she did is not worlds apart from how head teachers feel.

“I’m not up in arms, saying Ofsted has to be got rid of, but I think a future discussion, moving forward, about how those checks and measures are occurring, how frequently, and how the outcomes are presented and monitored is necessary.”

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