OFSTED Experiences: Part of her story is mine too

The tragic death of a much beloved headteacher, Ruth Perry, brought it all back. I did not expect to be so triggered by the news of her experience and had thought that I was doing fine after the devastation of my own school’s Ofsted inspection. Little did I know that the trauma buried deep inside came hurtling back, leaving me feeling broken, upset, angry and hugely resentful. As human leaders, we bury our deep emotions as we place the well-being of others over ourselves. However, I cannot be silent through the tears that keep on coming – the dam has been broken, there is no going back. This is my story of how the inspection affected me, and still does today.

My school was inspected the day after October half-term 2021. I remember when half term arrived, I thanked an exhausted and emotional staff force in the staff room for their hard work and commitment to children and colleagues as this was the most difficult term yet, post-lockdown. The magnitude of what we had to do, what we were doing, the high absence rates amongst pupils and staff had placed considerable pressure on a one form entry primary school. And yet, through the seven weeks ofthe first half term of the new academic year, we somehow managed to survive, teach well, and carry on with curriculum development which was halted over the period of lockdown and disruptions. My mantra had always been, we do what is best for the children, never for Ofsted! During this period of pressure and turmoil, I supported several teachers and staff facing huge personal issues and upheavals in their lives, These circumstances are important to note as it gives context to a school trying its best to serve our community.

When I received the call, I remember telling the staff, ‘We’ve got this. Ofsted will see the hard work we have done, and the efforts we have placed to put our children first and foremost in what we do’. There was considerable anxiety and I remember telling staff to go home, there is nothing more to be done. Just teach as you teach every day.

I was naïve. I recall now that trusted members of my leadership team were suspicious of the HMI and the additional inspector as the way they were questioned, led them to believe that we have already been judged – the inspectors were looking for evidence to back the case for the ultimate label.

It is only when I read Caversham Primary’s Ofsted report that I knew our school had been judged through a similar lens. Safeguarding was judged ineffective, and I am unable to say more on this to protect the children I still serve. I will say that the ‘lack of’ evidence is contentious, as these ‘issues’ were rectified immediately. As I repeatedly said to the inspectors, nothing we do as a school was to deliberately make any child unsafe. In fact, it has always been the opposite, and Ofsted confirmed this in its own report – “This means that pupils are potentially at risk ormay not get the help and support they need.” In feedback sessions with me, and members of the governing board, the inspectors confirmed that all children were safe. They confirmed that we had taken the right steps in safeguarding children, it is the paperwork that was not obvious, and the inexperience of some governors in helping to create an effective culture of safeguarding. I wish at this point to ask readers to remember the context and remember the timing of this inspection.

Our school was judged inadequate in early November of 2021 because safeguarding was judged ineffective; the report was not published until February of 2022. There was nothing I could say or do to change this. If you read our initial inspection report, there were many, many things we were doing well as we were judged Good in Behaviour and Attitude, and also Personal Development. These matter, but also did not matter. The great Ofsted conundrum! Prioritising pupil, staff and family mental health did not seem to matter. High absence rates due to Covid or the effect of Covid did not seem to matter. Covid was not taken into consideration at all even though it was less than a year after lockdown was lifted. I could tell you about how our 3 weakest readers were so anxious reading in front of the inspector and could not ‘perform’ so guess what that did to how Reading was judged?

Do not get me wrong. If you used the Ofsted framework, in that inspection, our school was not Outstanding, maybe not even Good. However, we are not, and we never were, inadequate.

I remember breaking down in front of both female inspectors. I remember how devastated and emotional I was. I challenged them to help me understand how I can carry on with leadership, and yes, I do take it personally, being judged inadequate. I asked them to understand how a humane organisation could treat people and communities this way. I asked them to reflect how they would feel, and act, as both inspectors were former headteachers, and had ‘sat’ in my chair. I asked them to help me understand how, when my heart and soul had been given to this role, when I sleep, breathe, and live this job at the expense of my family, and well-being, I could carry on. I remember that although I thought they heard, they did not listen. Both said that ‘I now had the mandate to turn the school around’. It is only now that I can see that I do not require their mandate at all – I have always served my school community, I have always had the best interest of staff and pupils at heart, I have always pursued academic excellence but not at the expense of well-being. Our school priorities are timely and well planned, ensuring that staff are supported to teach, and lead subjects well.

I had to be silent on our outcome for seven weeks, through Christmas and New Year. I had to reassure a staff team who knew something was up, and yet I could not speak of what had happened. I had to reassure parents that all was ok, and that the report would be communicated to them when published. I had to speak to potential parents who wanted to know if we had been inspected recently.

When I read Ruth’s story, it brought it all crashing back. The sleepless nights, the crying endlessly at home with my husband picking me up each time I said I cannot do this anymore. My children trying their best to support an unhappy mother who looked lost. The feeling of being a failure and, of failing. The over thinking of the impact of this outcome – what would our parents say and do? How are we ever going to come out of this as a small school dependent on pupil numbers to survive?

I remember Bonfire Night 2021, a school event attended by hundreds of parents, children, and members of the community where I had to make a speech, knowing the judgement, but unable to say anything. I remember feeling devastated and proud at the same time as I peered at a lit-up playground at what we had truly achieved during, and after the pandemic. Our school kept a community safe, cared for, and alive. Our ethos of inclusion, courage, service, and collaboration saw us through a time like no other. I have been told that my words that night were inspirational and hopeful. This is the one thing I do not remember. I just remember feeling totally exhausted, drained and broken and thinking, there is no way back. I felt alone.

Of course, writing this today means that I did ok. I am still here, just! Six working months later, Ofsted came back and turned a monitoring inspection into a full inspection. Oh, we are now an RI school don’t you know? I suppose I should be grateful, and yet I am actually resentful. Nothing much has changed since the last, devastating grading. I had to work harder to ensure the staff were supported mentally, emotionally, and physically. I had to work harder at pre-empting difficult conversations with parents and consider carefully how we can increase pupil numbers after the inspection. I had to work harder when some parents use the judgement to unfairly (in my opinion) criticise the school for any perceived errors or complain about things.

What has changed is how cynical I have become. My heart has been broken, and I am unsure how to mend it. I have had thoughts of leaving headship, in fact, leaving the sector as I observe injustice in the way education serves all our children, and our staff who work tirelessly every single day. There is too much politics, division, and unhealthy competition, with inspections being part of the battleground. I have battled and argued and reached out to people in rather high places to be listened to. Some listened, some helped in ways they will never know, and to these people, who are still here for me today, my deep gratitude for their ongoing support. I do not have to imagine Ruth’s experience of Ofsted as I believe it was also mine. However, I can only imagine what the impact of the inspection did to her, on top of all the other pressures that life, the job, and work can bring.

Part of her story is mine too. This cannot be the legacy we leave behind. The way schools are inspected and ‘labelled’ must change immediately. If Ofsted is about improving schools, then truly help leaders improve their schools by highlighting to the school, the results of their audit, and allowing schools to rapidly improve. Do not leave broken leaders behind when you leave on the second day, without turning back. Do not deny us a voice to raise our concerns appropriately. Be the humane organisation that education requires, so that schools, leaders, and communities can continually improve together, rather than leaving a trail of devastation without ever looking back. There must never be another tragedy like the life and death of RuthPerry, and countless others. Be the tool for successful school leadership, and not the sword that maims, injure, or worse, destroys.

Does the end justify the means? (Part 1)

“It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it” Fun Boy Three & Bananarama

(NB – any reference in this post to OFSTED is at an organisational, cultural and leadership level.  There are 1000s of OFSTED inspectors and thankfully the greater majority of them work with passion, dedication, kindness and compassion).

It has been a challenging period for the education system in England.  The incredibly sad news that Ruth Perry, headteacher of Caversham Primary school, took her own life in January whilst waiting for the publication of the school’s OFTSED report has sent shockwaves through the system and created a lot of media interest.

There is much for the policymakers, system leaders and staff in schools across the country to reflect on.

Interestingly in all the media attention and commentary the voice of OFSTED has been largely quiet, save a pre-prepared statement, distributed to all of the media outlets.  

Since my own experience with OFSTED, as a Headteacher in 2017, I have been periodically utilised as a commentator on issues of accountability in the education system… the gist of the questioning is always the same, assuming that as someone whose Headteacher career was essentially ended by a negative OFSTED outcome I must surely think that OFSTED is bad and that I would like it to be scrapped.  Yet more evidence of the simplistic and positional debate that we seem to love in this country… of course it is much more nuanced than that.

Whilst my views on OFSTED are my own they are informed by the thousands of Headteachers in the @HeadsUp4HTs network… a network that I initially founded to provided support to Headteachers who have been treated badly by the system that they have devoted their life to but which has since evolved into a network that CELEBRATES the great work of our leaders, their schools and the wonderful staff and children who work in them, SUPPORTS Headteachers with their well-being, helping them to stay in the system and find joy in the job that they have devoted their life to and CAMPAIGNS to change the negative culture that pervades the system that they have dedicated their life to. 

The reality is that much of that negative culture is generated by and perpetuated by OFSTED.  Their annual reports focus on what isn’t working, data and insights gained from their school inspection regime where the reports for schools in the most challenging of contexts and circumstance also focus mostly on what isn’t working and seek to reduce it to the most simplistic and reductive of one/two-word summary judgement.  

Every few years this data and ‘research’ is then utilised to build a new framework which focuses on the next thing that they have identified needs to be ‘fixed’ in our education system and off we go again… into the next negative cycle.

This week, I presume due to OFSTED’s silence, the media outlets have reached out to Sir Michael Wilshaw to offer comment and defence of OFSTED.  I was unexpectedly pitted against Michael on Jeremy Vine’s radio show on Tuesday 21st March, and I found his justification wholeheartedly reinforcing what I have felt for a long time.  His defence essentially boiled down to two things:

  1. OFSTED is necessary because in the 80s and early 90s (his reference frame seemingly) education was a mess.
  2. Yes, it is sad what has happened to Ruth Perry but look at all the good that has been done.

So, does the end justify the means?

  1. Let’s presume that his observation of the education system at that time is correct… and then state the blindingly obvious point that he is referring to a time that is 30-40 years ago.  It may have been deemed necessary to create a ‘hard-hitting’ regulator with teeth in the early 90s to address the perceived failings of the education system and its schools… the OFSTED culture at that time appears to have been something along the lines of “we think schools are not very good and populated by lazy and ineffective staff, we are here to find you out and address these issues for the benefit of young people” essentially seizing the moral high ground and at the same time starting the negative narrative that persists to this day.

The problem with this defence is of course that he is referring to another time.  where there may have been little or no accountability, we now have an overwhelming amount of it.  Not to mention the investment in CPDL for all staff, the development of curricula, policy/practice/systems development, technology.  I could go on and on…

The school system has evolved and transformed itself since then both culturally and in practice, whereas OFSTED may have evolved it’s practice but the culture remains as it was… for many Headteachers the lead up to an inspection, the behaviour of some inspectors during an inspection and the way in which OFSTED choose to categorise the school and write the report leaves them with a sense of “they think we are rubbish, they are here to find out that we are rubbish, I must spend the next two days proving that we are not rubbish” and of course if you are successful the relief is palpable, if you are not, the shame begins.  

(I am not delving here into the associated points 1) The context - that the framework ignores context and the complexity of society and individual humans when drawing its conclusions and therefore always will always be flawed 2) Inconsistency of application - the tighter OFSTED makes its frameworks the more obvious it becomes that they have a problem with the consistency with which it is applied… leaving Leaders and schools with a feeling of ‘unfairness’ 3) The politics - that sense that darker forces are at play, especially relevant in the past decade where the DFE’s desire for schools to join MATS seems to lead them to pull on a variety of levers to force this through, one such lever being OFSTED and those schools they have deemed ‘Require Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’.  All three of these issues contribute to the culture but stand alone as issues for the system).

  1. Let’s once again presume that this conclusion is correct (niftily setting aside the point that this is questionable - see here)… it’s unnecessary to state at what cost.  We have seen the devastation for Ruth Perry’s family and her school community… but there are hundreds if not thousands of others who have seen their careers ruined, their well-being damaged (with many of those we support in the HeadsUp4Hts community, severely so) a mostly untold human impact.  

Thankfully, many find different ways to work in education (ahem!) which reveals the dedication and passion these people have for the collective endeavour that education is… but at a time of recruitment and retention crisis in education and in this case specifically with Headteachers, can we really afford for this to be the case?  At an individual and system level the approach is devastating.  

The ‘end justifies the means’ argument has always been cleverly defended by OFSTED seizing the moral high ground and playing the moral imperative card… “we do it for the children” but again in playing this card they demonstrate their lack of respect for the profession… why do they think the staff in 24000 plus schools got out of bed this morning? For the glory? The money? NO, because they care deeply about their work and the children and families that they serve.

Do they always get it right? no, are they always striving to be better? yes, are they capable of holding themselves to account? yes (see the first lockdown period in education, no OFSTED… school staff worked as hard as ever to look after their communities).  If that argument doesn’t work for OFSTED…? Well, they can always duck their responsibility by looking into the darkness whispering ‘unintended consequences’.

In his defence Sir Michael reveals the heart of OFSTED… 

Being a Headteacher is the best job in the world, however the way in with which OFSTED goes about its business and the system wide culture this creates, means that many of our amazing Headteachers lose their connection with their purpose and the sheer joy and privilege of being a Headteacher.  At HeadsUp4HTs we work with HTs to rediscover that connection, positively impacting on their well-being as a result but we also campaign to change the culture of negativity recognising that it shouldn’t be like that in the first place.  

It isn’t the early ‘90s anymore, the world has evolved, and we don’t need fear as the driving force to develop our schools for the benefit of current and future generations of children – we have many thousands of dedicated and passionate staff and they are accepting of the accountability that comes with their job.  They are more than capable of holding themselves and each other to account and want a regulator who works in partnership with them to make this happen.

OFSTED - “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”… change your culture and as a step in that direction get rid of the simplistic, reductive and pejorative judgement categories that do more harm than they do good.  Then we would welcome you with open arms.