The tragic loss of Ruth Perry, a dedicated and respected school leader, has hit the teaching community hard, and our staff and members are no exception to this. Many teachers, school leaders and other education professionals have been deeply and personally affected by the news, and we join the whole teaching profession in expressing our most sincere condolences to Ruth’s family, friends and colleagues.
We recognise that suicide is extremely complex, and that mental health professional organisations warn against attributing it to a single cause. Ahead of the coroner’s report, and recognising the extreme grief that Ruth’s family and friends will be experiencing, we do not feel it is appropriate to comment on the specifics of this particular case.
More broadly, though, the response from across the schools sector has highlighted once again the intense pressure that is felt ahead of and in the wake of Ofsted inspections, as well as the immense strain that the education profession is under at the moment more generally. Last year, the Chartered College of Teaching and Education Support called on the government to act urgently on the mental health crisis in teaching, after Education Support reported a stark rise in the number of calls they were receiving from teachers at risk of suicide every day.
We fully recognise – as do our members – that regular inspection of safeguarding arrangements must continue to be carried out on a regular basis; 78% of respondents to a recent Chartered College poll about Labour’s proposals for reforming accountability agreed that safeguarding inspections should be carried out annually. They are a critical part of ensuring that our children and young people are kept safe. This is also a crucial part of what parents want to know from Ofsted inspections.
However, beyond the safeguarding element, our members have long-indicated a desire for a reform of Ofsted’s school inspection processes and highlighted the stress and unintended consequences such a high-stakes accountability system can create, something which is backed up by wider research. We believe consideration is needed of things such as Ofsted’s various (and sometimes conflicting) purposes and the validity and reliability of judgments, as well as risk assessment, complaints and review procedures, but the most fundamental and urgent change that is needed is a shift to make Ofsted inspections developmental rather than punitive, as they are currently perceived.
Our starting point for our position is that we believe – and see evidence on a daily basis – that schools and school leaders across the country are committed to doing the best they can for children and young people. Teaching is not a career that people choose for the money or for recognition, but because of a desire to make a difference.
Where standards are not being met, therefore, it must be recognised that this is not because of a lack of desire on the behalf of school staff. There may be myriad reasons that a school is not providing the quality of education we might expect – in the current context, not least challenges created by a recruitment, retention and school funding crisis – but where this is the case, expert support needs to be provided to enable improvement.
This is not something which is encouraged through the use of the current grading system, which too often results in leaders leaving their roles rather than being enabled and encouraged to bring about change. And research suggests that staff turnover in general is higher in a school with a poor Ofsted rating – potentially impacting on the school’s capacity to improve. Last week, we polled our members on their views on Labour’s proposal for replacing the current grading system with a ‘report card’; 77% of respondents so far feel the current grading system should be abolished. There is clearly wide agreement that there is a need to change the high-stakes nature of inspections.
Such a shift has the potential to have a significant impact on school leader and teacher workload and wellbeing more widely. Research carried out with our members last year indicated that preparation for Ofsted inspection is a major driver of workload in schools. We recognise that this is not something that is required by Ofsted itself, but the high-stakes nature of inspection has driven a culture of ‘mocksteds’ and intense inspection preparation, as well as a perception in school that activities such as trips, staff training and more should be rearranged when Ofsted come to visit. This needs to change; given the current power that Ofsted wields, a move to no-notice inspections would not be desirable either, but we need to build an expectation that schools can carry on as they would anyway, rather than preparing or ‘performing’ for an inspection.
Importantly, we recognise that the changes above are not solely in the gift of Ofsted themselves. There are things that we can do as a sector to reduce the impact that Ofsted has, from governors and MAT leaders demonstrating unrelenting support for school leaders in the light of Ofsted inspections, whatever the outcome, to having confidence in our schools and rejecting the need for Mocksteds or putting on a ‘performance’ for Ofsted. But we recognise that in a system where Ofsted inspections have such high stakes, this will continue to be a challenge until change is seen.
We know that our membership has broad and varying views on the accountability system, and that many of our members will also be Ofsted inspectors who will themselves be feeling under great pressure. Our Chief Executive Officer, Professor Dame Alison Peacock, has spoken with HMCI Amanda Spielman asking for a review of their approach to risk assessment and of the support provided to school leaders around inspections, as well as for assurance that appropriate pastoral support is being provided for their own inspectors.
In the short term, we trust in the professionalism and expertise of school leaders and encourage them to provide robust evaluation of inspection visits, following the complaints procedure where necessary. It is vital that Ofsted have an accurate picture of how inspections are experienced by all schools – regardless of outcomes – and the impact they may have. If we want to see a move away from a graded inspection system, this also means school leaders may want to consider stopping celebrating ‘Good’ and ‘Outstanding’ grades – as some have already chosen to do.
In the long term, we will continue to argue for the need for changes to the accountability system and engage productively and proactively with Ofsted and the government around this, representing the voices and views of our members. In many schools, we have seen a positive shift away from grading of lesson observations and punitive performance management to the creation of a culture of performance development where all teachers are supported to improve. It is time for us to see the same shift in how schools are inspected.
You can access immediate, confidential emotional support from a qualified counsellor through Education Support’s free helpline: 08000 562 561.