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An elementary schoolboy wears a school uniform and presents his work to the class with the support of his teachers beside him. This is a school in Hexham, Northumberland in north eastern England.

Ofsted under pressure

Ofsted under pressure


Teachers are calling for the UK’s schools watchdog to stop inspections following the death of a headteacher. Why?

“A Berkshire MP has raised his concerns with the school’s minister tonight after the family of a Reading head teacher says she took her own life whilst waiting for the publication of an Ofsted report.”

BBC South News

Ruth Perry was the head of a primary school near Reading.

“I’m very privileged to have been the head for the last 11 years. And I’m particularly proud of the fact that I’m a product of the school.”

Ruth Perry

She’d been in post for over a decade when Ofsted inspectors visited in November.

Schools judged as outstanding were previously exempt from regular inspections. But this has recently changed.

Ruth Perry’s school was inspected for the first time in 13 years. 

While waiting for the report, which downgraded her school from the highest rating to inadequate, Ruth Perry took her own life.

An inquest into Ruth Perry’s death is yet to take place.

Whilst it’s difficult to say why anyone takes their own life and the reasons are often complex, Ruth Perry’s sister, Julia Waters, has said that her death was the “direct result” of pre ssure put on her by the inspection.

That has driven Ruth Perry’s colleagues to call for change.

“We need to have something in place to check that schools are doing their job but in just a more nurturing way that has more wellbeing for their staff.”

Ruth Perry’s colleague, BBC News

And sparked anger among the wider teaching community too.

[Noise of silent walkout]

What you’re hearing here is a silent walkout. 

It was led by teachers from John Rankin School, close to Ruth Perry’s school.

The headteacher of John Rankin School announced plans to boycott an upcoming Ofsted inspection. The inspection went ahead, but the teachers wore black armbands while it took place.

And it’s not just John Rankin School that’s upset.

Some headteachers have removed references to Ofsted from their websites.

Three teaching unions have called for Ofsted to pause inspections, as well as the Association of School and College leaders.

Here’s its general secretary, Geoff Barton, talking to Good Morning Britain.

“I think unless you’ve been a school leader it’s quite easy to minimise what it feels like on a Sunday night, a Monday night or Tuesday night worrying about whether you’re going to get the phone call the next day – and Ofsted is going to come in.

Geoff Barton, Good Morning Britain

So how does Ofsted work and why are teachers upset about it?

Ofsted is the schools’ watchdog for England.  

It typically gives a school one day’s notice for an inspection, so that inspectors can get an honest view into how it is run.

Ofsted produces a report on the school it examines, full of detail.

It awards the school a grade: Outstanding, Good, Requires Improvement, or Inadequate.

Schools awarded poor grades will be subject to much more scrutiny from Ofsted to make sure they improve.

This can create a downward spiral if parents are then deterred from sending their children to the school.

The Observer newspaper reported that the stress of Ofsted inspections had been cited as factors in the deaths of 10 teachers over the past 25 years. 

One of the major criticisms of Ofsted is that this grading system is too simplistic, and that inspections are openly punitive.

The anxiety that inspections can cause has also been compounded by changes that mean schools previously judged as Outstanding… like Ruth Perry’s… are now subject to new inspections.

And it’s been exacerbated too by wider pressures on the education sector, which is widely seen as understaffed and underfunded.

So what has Ofsted said in response?

The boss of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, has rejected calls to halt inspections, saying that it would be ‘against’ children’s best interests’. 

A former head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, who used to be a headmaster, has come to the organisation’s defence.

“We have to remember how bad things were before Ofsted came into being in the early 90s. Standards were incredibly low, even in London, which is the standout area in the country. Ofsted has helped to raise standards immeasurably.”

Sir Michael Spielman, Sky News

But the story isn’t over. 

A petition for Ofsted to launch an inquiry into the inspection of Ruth Perry’s school has reached 200,000 signatures.

And the pandemic means there is still a huge backlog of inspections for Ofsted. 

The organisation is likely to face more accusations of bureaucracy and heavy handedness over the next few months.

And calls for reform are only going to continue.

This episode was written by Xavier Greenwood and mixed by Claudia Williams.

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