Written evidence submitted by a Member of the public

My submission to your report takes in part the form of an unsent letter to my local MP following the death of Ruth Perry, which I found shocking and distressing – see Part A.

I have added a further contribution as a direct response to your request for evidence from interested parties – see Part B

Part A

I am writing to express my dismay at recent events. I believe that the very nature of Ofsted is such that a hugely personal and emotional burden is placed upon teachers, and in particular on school leaders, who live permanently in its shadow, and for whom the experience, when it occurs, is a defining one, with a public judgement at its conclusion. It is a burden which is, on every level, completely disproportionate and deeply unhealthy.

This must stop.

I am requesting that you raise this national issue in Parliament on my behalf as one of your constituents. Please could you also write to Gillian Keegan, and forward her a copy of this email? Thank you. This is an issue which has concerned me for many years.

A life has been lost, a family is grief-stricken, staff and children heartbroken, and a whole school community of parents, governors, associates and friends, has been left in a state of devastation and mourning. The bleakest of events, and a dreadful memory for the human beings in that school, whose very raison d’être is children. It is a memory which will never be erased.

I write as a retired teacher. I have taught throughout my whole life and I know schools from the inside. I recognise very well the pernicious inspection culture which has resonated with everyone to whom I have spoken who is familiar with the world of education. What is more, we are only too aware, sadly, that this is not the first tragedy of this nature.

The Ofsted regime has been a brutal and punitive one, for many years, conducting unchecked a reign of terror in the name of high standards and parental rights to information. It claims the credit for raising standards, something which would surely be difficult to prove, but its shadow has for teachers, sucked the joy out of life in school.

Its focus and agendas have, over time, dictated what goes on in classrooms down to every last detail, damaging relationships and reducing highly-trained professionals to weary compliance. Education is now Ofsted-compliance. Schools have been forced to dance to its changing tunes, and are held responsible and accountable for whole areas over which they cannot have control.

Ofsted has been made aware of all of this, time and time again. The DfE has also been made aware of all of this, time and time again.

For clarity, I am not referring to rare cases of malpractice within schools which must of course be exposed.

Regarding references made by inspectors to safeguarding issues involving child-on-child aggression, and sexualisation, look no further than unregulated social media and mainstream tv, and look at daily news reports and celebrity culture. Schools do not create social evils, they deal with them. They do this on the front line every day, with ever-diminishing staff levels and resources, ever-increasing levels of accessibility, bureaucracy and accountability, and totally unrealistic expectations of the human beings working within them. The regulations relating to safeguarding are extensive, detailed, complex, technical and frequently updated. They reflect the society in which we live. There are extreme levels of social dysfunction out there which adversely affect children and young people. These issues run much deeper than the pandemic. Agencies outside the school, often unavailable and themselves overstretched, are required to be involved on a regular basis. This is just one aspect of a school’s work but it is time-consuming and preoccupying, and it is not the school’s central mission, which is to educate. It is highly likely that in this fluid situation there may be gaps in the paperwork at any given moment.

Each day, those working in this environment are left drained and demoralised, wondering why the job which they had believed would be the best and most worthwhile occupation and career in the world, leaves them feeling less than human, and barely able to appreciate the joyful moments which they once treasured.

I do not believe that in any other sector, professionals are subjected to the levels of scrutiny which an Ofsted inspection imposes, nor to its high stakes, its range and volume of demands, and to the infantilisation of the profession, which are all embedded in the process. Nor is sensitivity a word which is in my mind when I recall everything that I know and have heard from others about the inspection experience.

Ofsted wields the sword of Damocles which hovers above schools, whose headteacher, leadership team and staff are ever aware that at any moment the call might come, and that, should they be found wanting on some detail of its choice, Ofsted will, with that single word ‘inadequate’, effectively destroy them.

Who will guard the guards?

I would like to see research carried out on the adverse impact on schools and their communities, of the Ofsted inspection processes and outcomes, particularly but not exclusively, when the judgement is negative. I have seen throughout my career and in the community, the aftermath at first hand: for family or for individuals, trauma, despair, humiliation, demoralisation, loss of confidence, departure from the school or the profession; for the school, loss of its reputation and standing in the community, loss of respect and trust from parents and pupils, admission and staffing problems, difficulties for neighbouring schools. I could go on. Even schools which are graded positively after the event suffer the trauma of anticipation and the constant and unavoidable sense of imminent alert.

I am certain that investigation of such impact would give the lie to the Chief Inspector’s claim in her response, even now, when the tragic event is so fresh, that Ofsted inspections are in children’s best interests. This crass, glib defence is unacceptable. As for ‘do good as you go’, seemingly some sort of Ofsted mantra, in the current circumstances the insensitivity is astounding. The response leaves a sour taste.

This organisation has sucked the joy out of a wonderful job. There has to be a better way.

There are very different models of inspection. High standards and a respectful, supportive, humane, solution-based approach are not incompatible. They are the reverse. They should go hand in hand. If education is to embody and promote decent, human values, then these values must be demonstrated at every level, including within the inspection system. It is time, in Ruth Perry’s name, for Ofsted to be removed, and a new model to be created, one which is ethical and worthy of respect.

Part B

I am currently observing someone close to me, the Head of a large primary school, who is awaiting the call. This is a person of the highest quality academically, professionally and personally. She commands enormous admiration and respect from the whole school community. I am angered and distressed to see her being driven into the ground by a workload, one which is so excessive and voracious that no amount of input can satisfy, generated to a large degree by the demands of Ofsted. In its 30-year history, this organisation has shown not the slightest regard for, or even an awareness of, what is possible, achievable or reasonable in terms of accountability, let alone what is human and ethical in matters of staff welfare and well-being.

Is it any wonder that there is now a crisis in teacher and leader recruitment and retention? It is deserved.

As a teacher, I experienced the micro-management of teaching era of Ofsted. I recall the absurd level of detailed documentation required on a daily, lesson-by-lesson basis: planning, differentiation, individual pupil targets, constant pupil monitoring and required evidence of attainment and progress, again all on a lesson-by-lesson basis, inbuilt teacher-pupil marking dialogues as the norm for written work. I could go on. That way madness lay. The tension and stress were palpable. Relationships suffered. Reality, time constraints, the business of engagement with a class did not enter Ofsted’s vision at that time.

Later, this gave way to the data-obsession phase, which I note has, according to Ofsted, been superseded by a supposedly more holistic approach. I understand that staff are unconvinced, however, and there is a belief from every teacher I speak to that the data now has a covert role, that it often sets the agenda and that the inspectors find evidence to fit the narrative. That is the result of the lack of trust for which Ofsted is responsible. Looking at the requirements set out in the Education Inspection Framework, (which I am told lies open at all times on the desks of many Headteachers), it stands to reason that in the real world, much of the information-gathering during the visit, covering material which is so voluminous, detailed and judgement-based, would have to be random, limited and speedy, and therefore highly unreliable. All of this suggests to me that the judgement is of necessity pre-formed.

I am leading to a final, extremely important issue, the one which played such a key and disastrous role in the case which has prompted this inquiry, and one whose ramifications I am currently witnessing at close quarters. This is the issue of safeguarding.

Safeguarding is, according to all the conversations I am having with all concerned, and as a reflection of the world we live in and the society within which we operate, now the biggest issue which is facing schools.

The core mission of schools is to educate. However, as a result of the sheer volume of social dysfunction which now exists and which causes untold damage to children, schools are now being treated as a branch of Social Services, available and accessible in a way that Social Services, in reality, are not. Schools are neither designed, equipped, staffed nor resourced to deal with this level of dysfunction. They are, however, convenient scapegoats and disturbingly unprotected from abuse. The safeguarding requirements contained in the EIF leave school leaders and staff wide open to unreasonable demands and blame from a small but significant and growing number of parents and others, who are unable or unwilling to accept agency, and whose expectations are fuelled by the excessive and unrealistic requirements set out in the document. This provides unbounded entitlement to this group, as it sets no limits and gives scope for schools to be made responsible for every aspect of children’s lives. This is absurd, and unacceptable, both in principle and in terms of the stress it generates for professionals with a different role and mission. Teachers and leaders cannot be consumed by these social issues and should not be endlessly diverted from their central mission as educators. This is a problem to be solved by government and its funding and resourcing of more appropriate agencies.

However, let us not forget that Ofsted is merely the enforcer. As ex-teachers and leaders in many cases, they should know better, and they need to examine their consciences and ask themselves some hard questions.

The real responsibility lies with governments and policy makers. If the schools and accountability issue is not properly addressed, and steps taken to resolve it, involving all concerned, then there will be little left of an education service to protect and preserve.

The final insult, as I completed my reading of the eight proposed adjustments to Ofsted’s practice in response to criticism arising out of the tragedy, which barely scratched the surface of what is wrong, came in number 8. This was reported as:

DFE expands Heads’ wellbeing service.

This perhaps explains why my original letter remained unsent.

There is a mountain to climb.

I hope that you will give thought to the matters I have raised. In the meantime, I am observing the person I mentioned earlier with great concern.

July 2023