The QT

Saturday 15 June 2024
15/06/2024

Ofsted still ‘requires improvement’

Former Headteacher of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School, Bernard Trafford, takes aim at the continued use of single words to judge the performance of educational institutions and calls for significant change in Ofsted’s approach
Headteacher Ruth Perry whose suicide was ‘contributed to by an Ofsted inspection carried out in November 2022’

Headteachers said it ages ago. Ordinary teachers said it. School governors said it. Many (not all) parents said it. Some, but too few, MPs said it. The right-wing media never said it.

But now, at long last, a committee of MPs has finally done so. 

At the end of January, the influential Commons Education Select Committee declared that Ofsted, the government’s schools’ inspectorate, should no longer reduce the countless thousands of personal interactions, hopes, achievements and disappointments that take place every day in a school to a single-word judgement, whether it’s ‘outstanding’, ‘inadequate’ or something in between.

This belated outbreak of common sense has been a long time coming, after decades of misery: it has taken a high-profile tragedy, and a scathing coroner’s report, to bring about change. And, even now, this pronouncement is not in itself a change of policy and practice, merely the suggestion (which the government is free to ignore) that change should happen.

The tragedy in question was the death of primary headteacher Ruth Perry, who took her own life while awaiting the publication of an Ofsted report grading her previously highly-rated school inadequate. Obeying the rules forbidding her to share the information, she carried it for several weeks, alone and unsupported, until the strain became unbearable.

The inquest found that her school’s inspection was aggressive and inhumane: it ‘lacked fairness, respect and sensitivity (… the terms used in Ofsted’s Code of Conduct)’. 

Its advocates may have ignored the decades of stress and anxiety that resulted, the careers ruined and the joy ground out of the job for countless teachers: but few could overlook the depth of the tragedy of Ruth Perry. 

Bernard Trafford

The coroner called for training for inspectors to recognise the signs of distress and respond appropriately.

She also criticised the Ofsted system whereby Ruth Perry’s school, Caversham Primary, was downgraded from an otherwise good judgement because of a shortcoming in Safeguarding procedures or paperwork that, Ofsted admitted at the inquest, could have been put right before the report was even published.

In a combative pre-inquest interview on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour Ofsted’s boss, His Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI) Amanda Spielman, blamed schools and teacher unions for working ‘to create anxiety’, adding, ‘There was a very sad case in the spring that has been used as a pivot to try and discredit what we do’. It was widely denounced as tone-deaf and crass.  

This wasn’t a knee-jerk response to pressure, but par for the course.

I met Ms Spielman at an educational dinner in 2019. I was still writing weekly columns for TES (formerly the Times Educational Supplement): she’d had her people check me out and castigated me for the ‘unremittingly negative’ tone of my articles about Ofsted. She cited an inspection where, she claimed, people had been ‘begging her’ to give a damning grade so that they could get rid of a high-profile but (she implied) useless head.

Amanda Spielman retired from her position as His Majesty’s Chief Inspector in December 2023

She spoilt my dinner. More importantly, she hasn’t changed: she was always content to be the government’s educational Rottweiler. I believe it was she who, in one of her last acts before retiring, responded to that inquest verdict by announcing a day’s training (just the one) for inspectors on recognising signs of distress.

I cannot blame it all on her: Ofsted’s remit dates back to 1992. Far from abolishing it, when Tony Blair won the 1997 election, he and his Education Secretary, David (now Lord) Blunkett, retained the same approach, as did the Tories from 2010. Throughout this time, whenever the single-word judgement is challenged, those in power — and large sectors of the media — have insisted that it gives parents simplicity and clarity.

It’s the simplicity of a sledgehammer, and the clarity of a labyrinthine bureaucracy that insists nothing can be happening without a paper-trail to prove it.

Its advocates may have ignored the decades of stress and anxiety that resulted, the careers ruined and the joy ground out of the job for countless teachers: but few could overlook the depth of the tragedy of Ruth Perry. 

Last month the new HMCI, Sir Martyn Oliver, ‘paused’ inspections for a couple of weeks for rather fuller training than his predecessor advocated. And he has assured heads and teachers that he’s listening to their concerns. They’re going along with him, for now. 

Martyn Oliver, the new HMCI

Yet, despite promises of better practice, that single-word judgement is still in place. So don’t hold your breath, waiting for significant change.

When I sound off in this vein, I’m lectured about accountability: schools, as public bodies, must be accountable. Of course they must: but inspection is a blunt instrument, a brutally unsubtle way of measuring a fantastically complex operation. It does no one any favours. 

There are many better ways that don’t name and shame, nor create winners and losers. If the tragedy of Ruth Perry doesn’t finally motivate government to find one, what on earth will?

@bernardtrafford

Prototype miners safety lamps invented by leading scientist Sir Humphry Davy were first tested in Hebburn Colliery in 1816, proving to be a success.

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