Former Ofsted inspectors have described the school inspection process as “inhumane” and “unnecessarily punitive”, as the Government faces growing calls to overhaul the system in the wake of a headteacher’s death.
Two former Ofsted inspectors told i that they quit their roles after realising the pressure they were putting teachers under, with one describing the process as “evil”.
It comes as Ofsted faces a backlash after being linked to the death of the school leader Ruth Perry, who took her own life in January after learning that her Caversham Primary School in Reading would be downgraded from “outstanding” to “inadequate”.
Andrew Morrish, a former headteacher who co-founded Headrest, a helpline for headteachers in crisis, said his previous role as an Ofsted inspector “was the most callous experience of my life”.
Mr Morrish, who participated in more than 50 inspections during his eight years as a schools inspector, resigned from his role at Ofsted in 2016 after refusing to take down a blog post criticising the watchdog.
He told i that lead inspectors would often “make their mind up” about a school before launching an inspection, and would instruct fellow assessors to find evidence backing up their preconceptions.
“One thing that I would see so often on inspections was confirmation bias absolutely awashing the lead inspector, who would have made his or her mind up before the inspection started,” he said.
“I can give you examples where I’ve gone into schools and found stuff that’s shown them in a positive light, and been told: ‘No, you can’t use that. That doesn’t meet the narrative’”.
Mr Morrish recalled a visit to one primary school where he witnessed a “really great lesson being taught to Year 6” despite the school performing poorly.
“The lead inspector said ‘Well that can’t be in there, no no no. It’s obviously not good teaching because otherwise they wouldn’t be doing so badly’,” he told i. “You’d see that sort of thing all the time. I’d get extremely frustrated.”
Mr Morrish added that the process of delivering a bruising judgement about a school to its headteacher was often “unnecessarily punitive”, as he joined calls to introduce greater support for school leaders in the wake of an inspection verdict.
“There were times where we had to give a judgement to a headteacher informing them that their school was going to be deemed inadequate, and we knew that headteacher would break down in front of us.
“It was the most callous experience of my life – it was evil – because we’d sit there, we’d give them the feedback, and then we’d have to leave. We couldn’t hang around afterwards – Ofsted were quite clear about that,” he said.
Mr Morrish said that “virtually every single call” that his helpline Headrest has received since it was established during the pandemic “traces back to Ofsted and the pressure associated with inspections”.
“Don’t forget if you’re a headteacher, you’re part of the local community. You see everyone in Tesco at the weekend – you’re at church with them, you’re at the gym with them, you’re at the pub with them,” he said.
It comes after Ms Perry’s family said she took her own life in January while waiting for an Ofsted report which she had been informed would see her school downgraded from outstanding to the lowest possible rating.
It has sparked an outpouring of criticism from school leaders, who have removed references to Ofsted from their website and pledged to wear black armbands in protest during future inspections.
The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and the National Education Union (NEU) last week called for a pause to all Ofsted inspections, while the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) described them as “traumatic” and “damaging to [staff’s] wellbeing”.
Another former Ofsted inspector, who asked to remain anonymous, told i that he resigned last year following almost a decade in the job after it became “hugely stressful for both sides”.
“The amount of pressure where you’re on an inspection means that the ‘deep dive’ it’s supposed to be actually feels like a shallow splash,” he said.
“You’re very pressured in terms of time and you have to make a decision really quickly over the course of a day or two days, and it just became unmanageable for me. I’m obviously not against accountability, I’m just against the manner in which it’s done and the high stakes involved.”
The former teacher said recent changes to inspection procedures had exacerbated the rushed nature of the system, including a switch from handwritten inspection reports to time-stamped digital records in 2019, which he said inspectors felt compelled to complete on the spot.
The former Ofsted assessor added that he became acutely aware that a rushed-out judgement, in which schools are given a one-word judgement of either “outstanding”, “good”, “requires improvement” or “inadequate”, had the capacity to “ruin someone’s career”.
“It’s really high stakes – it can put somebody out of a job. You’re supposed to complete the inspections without fear or favour, and you try to do that as much as possible, but you are very aware of the stress you’re causing,” he said.
“As an inspector, you wouldn’t necessarily sleep well the night before. There’s no reason why schools in some cases should go 13 or 14 years without a check and then are then descended on in two days. That is inhumane.”
Other teachers have quit as Ofsted inspectors in the wake of Ms Perry’s death, including a headteacher at a London primary school who slammed the “toxicity of some inspection teams” which he said was “putting too much pressure on schools and school leaders”.
Amanda Spielman, chief inspector for schools in England, said last week that she was “deeply sorry” about Ms Perry’s tragic death, but that “stopping or preventing inspections” would not be in children’s best interests.
However, she also said that the debate around shaking up the current inspections system to remove blunt one-word grades was a “legitimate one”, signalling a potential path to reform amid furious backlash.
Labour has called for the current grading system to be replaced with report cards showing what schools do well and what they need to do to improve.
i understands that leading teaching unions are preparing to launch a major campaign calling on the Government to scrap the watchdog amid growing concerns that the current inspection system puts too much pressure on schools.
Ofsted declined to comment.