The tragic death of Ruth Perry, newly appointed head of Caversham Primary school in Reading, has raised questions about the immense pressures that many teachers face because of Ofsted inspections.
After being told Ofsted would rate the school inadequate, Perry, who had worked at Caversham for 13 years, took her own life. Her sister says Perry described waiting for the report to be published as “the worst day of my life”.
In response to the Matthew Purves, Ofsted’s Regional Director for the South East said; “We were deeply saddened by Ruth Perry’s tragic death. Our thoughts remain with Mrs Perry’s family, friends and everyone in the Caversham Primary School community.”
It’s because of the fear of Ofsted – the national regulator for all UK education and training – that Sarah left her role as a head teacher at a primary school, after six years.
“It’s much too much pressure,” she says, “and for head teachers, it can make or break your career. I was lucky and had good grading for both of the Ofsted inspections when I was head but it’s the reason that most people leave headship – that, and the insane workload and responsibility for pay which is well below what you’d get in the private sector.
“My personal view was that life was too short to be in a job where Ofsted changes the goalposts every few years, and I decided that I wanted to live a life where I was under less pressure. I think people would be shocked by how much Ofsted dictates the agenda in schools.” In all cases, Ofsted inspection can take place at any point from five school days after the first day students attend in the autumn term.
For Laura, a 34-year-old teacher in a state secondary school, an Ofsted inspection was the final straw that made her decide to give up teaching after 12 years. In 2013, Ofsted reduced the notice given before an inspection to just two days. “Hearing you have an inspection is a similar feeling to being told you have a hugely important exam the next day, but you have no time to revise for it, because you’re in the classroom teaching children.
“You lose your lunch break because you’re called into a briefing, and instantly, basic things you need for your wellbeing in an already pressurised job go out of the window because the inspectors are coming.
“You have to then prepare intensely for the inspection, while also trying to do your day of teaching. I stayed up until 11pm after the first day of inspection preparing meticulously again, because I knew if I made the tiniest mistake in front of an inspector I’d get flustered, so I made sure I was super confident.
“The day itself went ok, it felt like a fairly positive experience. The hardest bit came when we were waiting for the report to be released as we understood that this was not going to be a positive report.
“My anxiety built up so much during that time, waiting for the report to be published, and I was devastated when I read it, because it didn’t mention anything positive at all that I’d been involved in on the day of inspection.
“It felt like it didn’t matter what good things I knew I had done and what I could do as a teacher. It upset me so much that someone has the power to come in for a day and a half – when we’re here all day, every day, working really hard – and decide we’re all inadequate.
“After 12 years, I’ve realised I don’t want to be in a profession with that level of pressure, when there’s already so much pressure on us and we’re already so undervalued. There are so many great things about the job that I love, but that inspection made me feel that this was the end of my career. That judgement and that feeling that all our work was judged so unfairly and without nuance, that was the catalyst for my deciding to start a different career.
“The issue is that the judgement isn’t constructive. Ofsted moves onto a new school, and then we’re left as teachers with a loss of trust from children and their parents. I had to start defending so many decisions being made, even when they were the right ones, because now that we’d been labelled inadequate, we lost some of our authority.
“We were left dealing with the fallout of being discredited in the children’s eyes, and so it doesn’t matter that we’ve given our pupils individually, we’re officially seen as having failed them. That makes it so hard to improve things, and that has had a very big effect on my mental health.”
A survey by Teacher Support Network in 2022 found that 88 per cent of 800 teachers developed symptoms of anxiety in advance of an inspector’s visit, and 10 per cent said that inspections had a positive effect on their own performance in the classroom. Meanwhile, over 90 per cent of teachers say the inspections make no difference to pupil’s academic results.
Tim Atkinson began teaching in 1987, and has had middle and senior leadership roles, such as assistant head teacher. He has loved his career in the classroom, but knows the toll that inspections can take. “I’m old enough to have been in teaching long enough to remember when local authority inspections happened,” he says, remembering the first ever Ofsted inspection in 1992. “Before Ofsted, inspections weren’t anything like as punitive or judgemental, and they’d share some of the lessons they’d learnt and some of the wisdom they had.
“All the teachers I know say that Ofsted shifts the goalposts everytime they call, and teachers feel they’re having to catch up with a new set of Ofsted criteria and an increasing amount of paperwork in order to keep them satisfied. The pressure of either standing or failing is so immense, and the number of colleagues going off sick either before, during or immediately after inspection is not insignificant. Of course there needs to be inspection, of course schools need to be checked, but no teachers seem to feel this really benefits them or their pupils. Even heads and teachers at top-rated schools are waiting with bated breath constantly for the next time the inspector is going to call.”