Ruth Perry’s death is a watershed moment that must not happen again

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

The death of headteacher Ruth Perry following an Ofsted inspection has been described as a watershed moment, a shift in the way that most people think about school inspections. It’s a tragedy which has thrown into sharp focus something which should be obvious – no system for checking on performance and standards should ever have such a devastating impact as this on an individual human being. 

An inquest has yet to take place, and we should be careful not to prejudge its verdict, but it is very clear that Ms Perry was deeply traumatised by the outcome of an inspection which downgraded her school – a school to which she had devoted her life – from ‘outstanding’ to ‘inadequate’. Her family’s account of the agonising impact this had on her is heartbreaking. 

Whether or not this case leads to any actual change remains to be seen.  

ASCL, alongside the NAHT and NEU, called this week for a pause to inspections. Our view is that this would allow time for a review to take place into the impact of the system on the wellbeing of leaders and teachers. It could consider immediate changes – including the removal of overall graded judgements such as ‘inadequate’ which reduces everything that a school does to a single, brutal word – as well as a commitment to longer term reforms. We set all this out recently in our discussion paper on the future of inspection.

On Tuesday, we wrote to Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman and Education Secretary Gillian Keegan formally requesting a pause to inspections and setting out our reasons. 

We now know that the suggestion has been rejected.

I will leave it to them to explain why they feel that the inspection system as it is currently conceived is the right thing for parents, communities, schools, and colleges. The problem is that all the evidence points to it being the exact opposite. Not only does it not work well for any of those groups, but it seems to actively damage the education system it purports to support.

Let’s start with the impact on leaders. 

The death of Ms Perry is an extreme example. But the truth is that the inspection system often has a catastrophic effect on individuals. For a start, leaders whose schools are rated inadequate generally lose their job, their livelihood and their professional reputation in a single stroke. It is not Ofsted that dismisses headteachers of course. But everybody knows that this is the likely outcome; that governors and trusts will often feel they have no other option. 

And then there is the permanent state of anxiety felt by all leaders at all times about the prospect of the next inspection – when it will happen, whether they are prepared, and the dark thought about the disaster that will unfold if it goes wrong. 

This matters for two reasons. First, it just isn’t right. It is hard to think of many other professions which are subjected to such a merciless system. The former Prime Minister Boris Johnson literally broke his own laws during the pandemic and is still, amazingly, serving as an MP on a salary of £84,000 – although perhaps for not much longer. 

Meanwhile, headteachers routinely lose their job not because of an act of illegality or gross misconduct, but because of a single inspection outcome. There is no period of grace, in which perhaps, inspectors might advise on areas for improvement and return a few weeks later to check on implementation. A professional process which would be helpful and supportive and aid immediate school improvement. Instead, it is a trapdoor. Either the relief of a positive rating or the punishment of a negative rating. No second chances.

Second, it is also a disaster for the education system. Stress and anxiety over inspections leads many heads to consider leaving the profession, and undoubtedly deters others from stepping up to leadership. The simplest way to avoid football-manager syndrome is to avoid being a football manager. The education system needs great leaders. It needs people who want to take on the challenge of running a school or college in all its complexity and providing children with a fantastic, enriching education. An inspection system which drives away potential leaders is obviously counterproductive.

So too is the effect of negative judgements themselves. The consequences for a school or college, and the community it serves, are very serious. It is harder to recruit staff – the very staff who are, of course, needed to secure improvement. In addition, the school is likely to be under-subscribed, with the consequent impact on funding. And then there is the awful, demoralising impact on parents, pupils, and staff of being at a ‘failing school’. 

How does any of this improve educational standards, provision, and outcomes? Surely, it has precisely the opposite effect.

None of this is new of course. It has been the same sorry state of affairs for many years. The inspection system has long needed fundamental reform; a seismic shift to something which is not only fairer and more proportionate, but which actually works better to support school improvement and a pipeline of great leaders. 

And what has changed is that all of this has been brought to public attention by the death of Ms Perry. 

It should obviously never have needed a tragedy to prompt a watershed moment. Ministers and Ofsted now have a responsibility to ensure that there are no more watershed moments. 

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary. 

Posted: 24/03/2023 11:50:41