In the week that school academy heads have called for a total reappraisal of the way Ofsted conducts school inspections and even a certain Michael Gove, the controversial former education secretary, hinted at a rethink of the “inadequate” label, the school at which I teach held a small celebration: we had just received a much-coveted “outstanding” rating after our own Ofsted inspection. The relief was palpable. The future rosier. But should it be? Should the inspection system and its repercussions cause the paroxysms of stress that schools go through in advance – and beyond, if the verdict is poor? And, should parents place less stress on Ofsted reports?
Sadly, the suggestions above form part of the fall-out from the tragic case of Ruth Perry, the dedicated head teacher of Caversham Primary School, who took her own life after the school’s first Ofsted inspection in 13 years. This labelled the previously “outstanding” Caversham, over-subscribed with parents, as “inadequate”, in part based on alleged failures in safeguarding. One example cited was a child doing the wildly popular “floss” dance in the playground, apparently an example of “child sexualisation”. One judgemental word redefining an impeccable career leading to a caring 53-year-old mother-of-two taking her life.
My own school had been expecting Ofsted. We were due and knew inspectors were in the area. Suddenly, the head received the lunchtime call informing us that “they” will be in tomorrow. A sophisticated operation geared into action: briefings for teachers, pupils, support staff – all pre-prepared. “What scheme of work are we studying?” I asked my Year 9s. “Rhetorical questions, sir,” said one boy, before my metaphorical face palm made him rethink: “Wait, no, the art of rhetoric.” My Year 8s reassured me: “Don’t worry sir, we’ll behave tomorrow.”
“So, what about the rest of the year?”
“Nah, don’t care.”
“What scheme of work is this?” asked the Ofsted man in black sitting at the back of my Year 9 class two days later. “The art of rhetoric.”
“What is behaviour generally like?”
“There is minimal disruption in Mr Hatfield’s classes.”
This led to an actual face palm, when they told me afterwards what they’d said: “minimal disruption”. Could that sound more coached? I genuinely worried all night about how my class had gone. Needlessly so. We were “outstanding” – but not because we all work together to achieve this, all day every day, but because those inspectors deemed us so in a two-day snapshot. Unlike poor Ruth Perry, we could breathe easy.
Experts like Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former head of Ofsted, have said parents “want a summary judgment” on whether they are sending their children to a good school. This has a whiff of truth about it. Parents do all seek reassurance. We do judge one local school against another. But, we always did, way before rankings and league tables – and long before the first Ofsted inspections in 1993.
The word “summary” is problematic, as are those single judgemental words: “outstanding” or “inadequate”. Schools are highly sensitive, ever mutable, wildly complex living organisms that cannot be summarised by one incident, one opinion, one word. Yet, that one “summary” word defines a school in parents’ eyes for the next four years. It’s truly “inadequate”. Surely, we all “must do better” and rethink inspections to prevent another tragedy like Ruth Perry.