Ofsted is in the papers again. In fact, since the news about the suicide of the headteacher, Ruth Perry, hit the papers just over a month ago, Ofsted has been inhabiting the airwaves daily. And for all the wrong reasons. For an organisation whose strapline contains the words, ‘improving lives’, the dichotomy is jarring and, despite the best efforts of Ofsted itself playing the ‘sit tight and carry on’ game, the issue is not going away.
On Saturday, Prof Julia Waters, the bereaved sister of headteacher Ruth Perry, addressed the National Association of Headteachers’ Conference. This is a woman who has lost her sister, to suicide. I cannot even begin to imagine the emotional strength required to deliver such a call to arms. She implored schools to take down their Ofsted banners. She told headteachers that she would not “give up until Ofsted is reformed”.
I am currently the executive director of the Suffolk Primary Headteachers’ Association. I represent headteachers. In many of the interviews that I have been invited to give since the news first broke, I am repeatedly asked, ‘What needs to change?’ There is also a slight air of disbelief. ‘Is it really so bad?’
Ofsted is punitive
It is difficult to convey how the Ofsted regime percolates through the walls of schools. There are so many aspects of inspections that create stress and limit what the profession might achieve with a less punitive regime. Headteachers cannot afford to stray too far from what Ofsted purports is a good education. It is simply too risky, even if headteachers and practitioners know that they could be providing something better.
There are secondary issues too that arise from a less favourable outcome such as losing support of parents, recruitment challenges and a drop in pupil numbers, which in turn reduces the school budget.
Thanks in great part to the many people speaking out, there does appear to be a growing understanding that the inspection process, and the knock-on effects, may very well be detrimental for the system at large.
Action against Ofsted
It is good that schools and school leaders are taking action themselves. Prof Waters’ proposals should be taken up. The removal of banners is a step forward. It is time we, as a profession, stopped amplifying something that we know is an inconsistent and damaging process.
There is other action happening too. As a group in the East of England, we are conducting a study into inspections with leaders from across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. With input from across three counties, we are collating evidence to be able to present a report to politicians and those working for the Department for Education.
However, amidst the noise that has followed this tragedy, I have noticed that action is not happening everywhere. There is still a quiet baseline that continues to strum along regardless. It is not coming from Ofsted, and it is not coming from school leaders. It is coming from the local press and it is damaging.
I used to live in North Hertfordshire. I moved over to the North Essex coast in 2017. When I moved, I deliberately stayed linked into some Facebook groups that were specific to where I used to live – the towns of Letchworth Garden City and Hitchin in particular. In fact, I was a governor of a school, Icknield Infants, in Letchworth, many moons ago.
I also taught the piano and flute to a number of children who attended St Thomas More Catholic Primary, also in Letchworth. These are schools that I still feel an affinity with. The children are now in their 20s. I hear of them from time to time. One is now an architect; another is a singer.
Ofsted rears its head
Twice in the past fortnight, these two schools have popped up on my social media feeds. Why? You guessed it: Ofsted. The article about St Thomas More is shocking. The local newspaper has taken it upon themselves to announce that the school has been ‘downgraded’ from Outstanding to Good.
The article omits to detail any positive comments from the inspection report, and instead outlines how the school can improve. This is followed by the very familiar ‘quotes’ from the headteacher, who, in some grim twist of fate, is also called Mrs Perry.
I could write 20 of these statements. ‘We are very proud that… Please be reassured that…’ It is a game in public communications that no headteacher should need to play. It is damage control that, quite honestly, should be unnecessary.
I think we can all agree we want well-supported, well-staffed vibrant schools at the heart of our communities. This is not achieved by pitching one faction against the other, or over-egging the outcome of an inspection for the sake of a headline. While we await more wide-reaching reform, I ask all those who come into contact with schools – whether as governors, as local councillors, and most definitely the local press – what can you do to help?
Are inspections newsworthy?
I wonder. What would happen if local newspapers took a different angle? Instead of seeking out the negatives, could they prioritise good news stories? Even better, press the mute button on these Ofsted inspection reports entirely. Are they really newsworthy? The parents will be informed anyway via school communications. This is more than adequate and, as Ofsted itself says, the report is for parents.
I would also encourage parents to look beyond Ofsted reports. If you are looking at this from the outside in, I hope that you can recognise that these ‘single word judgements’ are inadequate in themselves for providing a window into a school’s strengths. In my own PR exercise following an inspection in 2020, commenting to the local reporter who had been circling like a vulture for the story, I said, “The Ofsted report only offers a glimpse into the enormous work a committed and passionate group of professionals is putting in to raise standards”.
Interestingly, the other school in Letchworth, Icknield Infants appears to be one of those schools that has fallen victim to the ‘limiting judgement’ lottery – whereby one of the five category judgements ends up being the overarching judgement. They were judged good in four areas but one area was deemed requires improvement. It is this that appears in the headline. Of course it does.
Icknield will be labelled as requires improvement online, on estate agents’ search engines until the inspectorate deigns to visit again. Will it be in 18 months, two years, 30 months or longer? The wait will be long and it will be stressful. Will the school be able to recruit teachers or new governors in this crucial period? Possibly not.
Could the press ‘mute’ it?
So for those reporting on Ofsted inspections in local newspapers, I ask that you change your tune. With so many well-attested flaws in the system are you amplifying something that is causing damage to your local communities?
Hopefully I’ll hear very little about Ofsted in local newspapers in the future. That would be very good indeed.