'Change is coming’ – pressure mounts as heads revolt against Ofsted’s regime

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Pull them down: The NAHT president-elect Simon Kidwell called on his colleagues to pull down their Ofsted banners and stop using inspection reports to promote their schools (image: Adobe Stock)

"Let me be clear, Ofsted does not raise standards.” And so began the National Association of Head Teachers’ annual conference – with a rallying cry that is echoing around our nation’s schools.

The cry came alongside calls to remove Ofsted banners from outside our schools, delete Ofsted quotes from our websites, and remove its logos from our stationery.

The event in Telford over the bank holiday weekend was dominated by the shadow of Ofsted and the anger that has erupted following the death of headteacher Ruth Perry earlier this year.

A poignant and powerful address by Ruth Perry’s sister, Professor Julia Waters, accused Ofsted of destroying Ruth’s career, world, and sense of self with a one-word judgement.

Prof Waters made national headlines as she asked headteachers working as inspectors to “hand in their badges”. An emergency motion followed, unanimously approved by NAHT delegates, instructing the union to request that members refrain from inspecting schools.

It was president-elect Simon Kidwell who led the charge during his 18-minute address on Friday morning (April 28).

He told around 400 delegates: “Let me be clear, Ofsted does not raise standards. It is the tireless work of the staff in schools that does that. At best, Ofsted offers little more than a snapshot of a school’s performance, and there are serious questions about how well it can do even that.

“The reality for many is that it the current approach to inspection compounds inequality between schools. The current model is a workload creation vehicle for subject leaders, and it causes unacceptable collateral damage to school leaders’ mental and physical health.”

There has been an outpouring of grief and anger after it emerged Ms Perry, the 53-year-old headteacher of Caversham Primary School in Reading, took her own life ahead of the publication of an Ofsted inspection report that was due to downgrade her outstanding school to “inadequate”.

An inquest into the death is to be held at Berkshire Coroners’ Court with a pre-inquest review scheduled for July. A petition calling for an inquiry into the Caversham inspection has now reached around 237,000 signatories and counting.

Mr Kidwell, who will take over as NAHT president in September and who is currently the headteacher of Hartford Manor Primary School in Cheshire, urged members to tear down Ofsted banners from outside their schools and stop using Ofsted inspection reports to promote their schools.

He explained: “Let’s take some collective actions to put Ofsted back in its box. Let’s remove any Ofsted banners from our railings, erase Ofsted logos from our school stationary, delete Ofsted quotes from our websites, and when Ofsted reports are published tell our communities that Ofsted is a snapshot of school performance judged against a framework that urgently needs a serious reform.”

Mr Kidwell spoke openly about his own battles with stress and the impact Ofsted has had on his school and staff: “My most recent Ofsted inspection was last week. It was a graded inspection with several inspectors working excessive hours and leaving no stone unturned. The process was led by a highly skilled lead inspector who conducted the inspection with intelligence and humanity, but despite her approach it still almost broke two valuable and brilliant members of staff.

“I know we will all have our own stories to tell about how the punitive accountability system has affected us personally. My own physical health has been impacted by the job – 16 months ago I was rushed into hospital and for three days was signed off work because of physical complications that doctors thought was directly caused by the stresses and pressures of work.

“Ruth Perry’s death has sadly made me question if I have enough in the tank to lead my school through another Ofsted cycle.”

Since the outpouring of anger, Ofsted has announced a review of its complaints procedures and its approach to the inspection of safeguarding.

The Caversham inspection report rated the school as good in every area except leadership and management, which was rated inadequate mainly due to safeguarding concerns of the inspectors. As such the overall rating was automatically inadequate.

A statement from chief inspector Amanda Spielman said: “We are making changes. One of the most critical areas we look at on inspection is safeguarding. Keeping children safe is so important that a school can be graded inadequate if safeguarding is poor – even if everything else in a school is done well.

“We won’t be soft on safeguarding, but it’s an area which isn’t always well-understood. It’s sometimes mis-characterised as an exercise in paperwork, but as everyone who works in schools knows, it’s much more than that. We need to see that schools understand and manage the risks of children coming to harm. We need to know that prompt action is taken when it happens.

“However, we do recognise that some gaps in schools’ knowledge or practice are easier to put right than others. We are looking at how we can return more quickly to schools who have work to do on safeguarding but are otherwise performing well. That should enable us to see fast improvements and reflect them in our judgements.”

However, Mr Kidwell added: “For too long … we have been told that pay freezes are the unavoidable consequence of austerity. We have been told that Ofsted is the main driver for school improvements. We have been told that parents value league tables and simplistic one word grades.

“Mark my words, change is coming – and our resolve is strengthening.”

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