Ofsted needs to be Ousted

 

On Friday 17th March I read with horror about the death of a head teacher in England who took her own life after an Ofsted inspection  on the school she was leading. In the words of her family: ‘Ruth Perry was a mother, wife, daughter, sister, aunty, niece, sister-in-law, friend.’

 

That newspaper report took me right back to June 2018 when I wrote a letter to Amanda Spielman, Head of Ofsted. It was a letter that I never sent; at the time, I did not want to cloud the ambitions, hopes and dreams of the leaders who came after me. It was a letter that expressed the anger I had felt towards the team leading the last Ofsted inspection that my staff had to endure before I moved on from being a full-time head to working as a leadership coach. This school, which I had led with a very inspiring group of leaders, had received a judgement that was not at all reflective of the work of the school community.

 

I loved being a head teacher and my career in education spanned 30 years. I had the pleasure of leading three very different schools, working with hundreds of wonderful pupils and staff members. I started my teaching career in 1987, which was five years before Ofsted was created.

 

My opening paragraph in that letter recalled a serious time in our recent history. 

 

‘In the summer of 2017, every school in the country reacted with horror at the terror attacks around the United Kingdom and many lockdown policies were being shared in consortiums up and down the country. Pupils spent time that summer practising the routines that would be needed if the school grounds were breached by an intruder.  

 

As each of these head teachers wrote down their procedures, they failed to add one of the most destructive groups that could come walking through the door at any school. This group did not need a gun or a machete. They came armed with assumptions that they had already made from a set of data. They came armed with piles of paper and closed minds and lots of closed questions. I am so sad to be writing to you to say that the most destructive group that schools face in this current day is the one you head up – Ofsted.’ 

 

Please don’t misunderstand me; I am all for accountability, but the system that has evolved from those early days has not, in my eyes, improved education. The stress and burdensome ‘prepping for Ofsted’ that goes on every day in every school in this country takes away the enthusiasm, energy and excitement for teaching. It disempowers school leaders who are passionate about their work. 

 

This system creates fear and we all know that when we are scared, we are less likely to take risks. Our stress levels go up as we are constantly on the lookout for danger. No school leader I know feels truly safe when an Ofsted inspector comes walking through the door. 

 

Psychological safety is the key to good learning. A good teacher knows that when their class feels safe and when they recognise that failure is acceptable, then the pupils are prepared to take risks and stretch towards growth. This is exactly the same for leaders, and an accountability group that creates safety will go so much further. In my experience, school leaders are always looking for growth. What could be better than to evolve the current punitive Ofsted framework into one where schools can grow in partnership with people they respect not fear? 

 

In a recent coaching session, I heard from a young school leader who was exhausted with the pressures of meeting after meeting regarding Ofsted, who was literally crossing her fingers and hoping that she would get through until the end of term. She didn’t have the energy to think strategically about what her team needed or what might be best for her pupils. Every week, I hear teachers talk about the countdown to Wednesday lunchtime, waiting for the call. This constant being on standby has severely sapped the energy of our whole profession, and the plug needs to be pulled. 

 

So I am now writing to Ofsted to voice my concern about what is going on, as well as my abhorrence that a dedicated school leader has ended up taking her own life. It is the lack of voice that is key here. As a school leader, you are not allowed to discuss any element of an Ofsted report until it is published. When as a Head you are charged with holding negative comments for weeks; it also stops  leaders from reaching out for support when they most need it. The systems Ofsted put in place to voice any concerns mid-inspection are equally inappropriate; it is hard to raise a grievance when you do not feel safe with the person in the room. 

 

In the early 90s, a HMI who was working with my first school talked to the senior team about her views on the development of Ofsted. She laughed as she told us that the spell check on her computer had not recognised the word ‘Ofsted’ and had changed it to ‘Ousted’. The relationship we had with that HMI was of healthy respect and understanding. She knew our school and provided sensible challenges to move on practice in the school. There was a sense of audit around the process but it wasn’t one which left us repairing damaging negative comments about members of the school community. We were in debate with each other about how to raise standards. That respect was built on the fact that growth comes when you are in relationship with each other. It is impossible to be in a relationship with a team you do not know. 

 

If I am lucky enough to live to the age my parents lived to, I will look back in 40 years from now to when I left education and the memories I left with: treasured memories of working with hundreds of pupils who loved learning, of teachers who loved teaching, parents and governors who supported schools, and local authority advisory staff who challenged our learning. Ofsted will not be part of those fond memories, and I truly hope that at that point in time Ofsted will have finally been ousted … consigned to the scrap heap, and that schools will be working with supportive accountability partners who truly work hand in hand with education leaders. 

 

Then and only then, will the tragic death of Ruth Perry – and all the other school leaders who have taken their lives due to negative pressure from Ofsted – be vindicated. 

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