Ofsted under scrutiny – School inspections to resume on 22 January 2024 having been paused for inspectors to receive mental health awareness training

England and Wales

The inquest into the devastating suicide of headteacher Ruth Perry sparked a national conversation about the impact of Ofsted inspections on school leaders and their well-being and whether the current inspection regime is fit for purpose. The inquest ruled that the Ofsted inspection “contributed” to Mrs Perry’s death and it was noted that the inspection “lacked fairness, respect and sensitivity”. Furthermore, it was considered that the inspection at times was “rude and intimidating”. The coroner's conclusion, linking Mrs Perry's mental health deterioration and subsequent death to the way in which the inspection was conducted, highlights significant and distressing concerns for Ofsted. Ofsted’s notable response to Mrs Perry’s death and the subsequent Coroner’s criticisms has been to halt inspections until inspectors have been trained in protecting the wellbeing of school leaders and staff involved in the inspections.  This has been confirmed by the new Chief Inspector of Education, Martyn Oliver, who commented that the training will not be a one-off but instead will be “part of a series that will significantly upskill all of [Ofsted’s] inspectors in how to manage the wellbeing of those [being inspected]”. In addition, he also commented that “mental health awareness training is a first step – but for me a critical first step – in reassuring the sectors we work with that we are serious about change.”

Ofsted have recently announced that inspections will restart on 22 January 2024.

Mrs Perry’s school had not been inspected for around 13 years, having previously been rated by Ofsted as Outstanding. Due to a change in policy regarding inspections of Outstanding schools in 2021, Mrs Perry’s school was due for an inspection in November 2022. As was highlighted during the inquest, a school which is “Good” in all areas but with quickly remediable safeguarding concerns could be judged overall “Inadequate”. This could result in a generally “Good” school achieving the same overall judgement  as a school which performs poorly in all areas. This clearly has considerable consequences in respect of reputational damage but also when considering maintained schools and the threat of job losses and possible academisation. There is a question as to whether this approach is appropriate and fair towards well performing schools. As we commented on in our Levelling the Playing Field article, Ofsted’s national director of education had previously commented that the detail of the inspection report should be considered alongside the rating to really understand the quality of the school in question. Therefore, it is clear that the current one-word Ofsted judgement fails to provide sufficient insight into how a school is actually performing.

The Beyond Ofsted inquiry, led by Lord Knight and supported by the National Education Union, has advocated for substantial changes in the school inspection system. One of the main recommendations from the inquiry was to end single-word judgements such as "Good" or "Inadequate," which was considered “too simplistic” to describe how a school was performing. In addition, there was a recommendation for schools to be accountable to the wider community and parents by way of their own improvement plans. Whilst arguably teachers and leaders at each school know their pupils and the issues those pupils face better than Ofsted who act within a structured framework with limited flexibility, where there is such disparity already with schools located in areas of high poverty there is the risk that this disparity will increase and pupils in those areas will become further disadvantaged if accountability is subject to engagement from the wider community and parents.

Critics of Ofsted highlight various reasons for reforms or abolition, including the intense focus on testing and metrics, concerns about validity and fairness in inspections (something which was highlighted again during Mrs Perry’s Inquest), the negative impact on schools' holistic education, and the well-being of staff and pupils. They also argue that the resources allocated to maintaining the current inspection system could be better utilised, for example to improve educational standards and provide teacher training. Amidst a diverse array of opinions surrounding Ofsted, some believe that while reforms are necessary, the oversight and accountability provided by Ofsted inspections is crucial for maintaining educational standards. Any level of reform has its challenges and will take time to embed and whether you are a critic or supporter of Ofsted, there is consensus that it is important for schools to be subject to oversight in some way in order to best protect pupils and their education.

As the conversation around Ofsted intensifies in the aftermath of Mrs Perry's death, there's an acute sense of urgency for reforms within the educational inspection system. The spotlight remains fixed on Ofsted, with the pressing question being: what comes next for Ofsted? Will these recommendations translate into real, transformative changes within Ofsted's inspection regime? Or will the status quo prevail, with the risk of leaving school leaders susceptible to inspections lacking “fairness, respect and sensitivity” for the foreseeable future?

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Content contributors Katie Clarke and Leia Hayes