Ruth Perry death: 'Ofsted must listen to coroner recommendations'

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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I really cannot understand the point in the regulatory bodies in this country. I work in the NHS, ...

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Any recommendations made by the coroner investigating the circumstances of headteacher Ruth Perry’s death must be considered fully by Ofsted, it was said this week. It comes as a petition calling for change approaches 200,000 signatories and the chief inspector issues her first public statement... Pete Henshaw reports

There has been an outpouring of anger and grief after it emerged the 53-year-old headteacher took her own life ahead of the publication of an Ofsted inspection report that was due to downgrade her outstanding school to inadequate.

A petition calling for an inquiry into the inspection of Caversham Primary School in Reading has now reached 176,000 signatories and counting.

The petition states: “Ruth Perry had been the headteacher at Caversham Primary School for 13 years when Ofsted visited her school on November 15 and 16, 2022. The experience drove her to sadly take her own life.”

It continues: “Ofsted inspections have evolved into such a monster that the mere thought of them causes fear, stress and anxiety to schools, school leadership and staff alike. Actual inspections can leave staff in tears.

“Many leaders leave the profession following an inspection because the stress caused by the inspection is simply too great and sadly some take their own life, like in the very sad case of Ruth Perry.”

The petition calls on Ofsted to investigate this specific case, to “review the inspection and the actual wording of that report” and “what could have been done better”.

It adds: “They also need to review the whole system – it isn’t working, inspections are too unwieldy, and it takes too long to get through them leaving schools for too many years between inspections. They need to be smarter, quicker and more supportive.”

An inquest into Ruth Perry’s death was opened in January at Berkshire Coroners’ Court and is expected to take place next term – a full hearing date has not yet been set.

As the pressure built, Ofsted inspector Amanda Spielman responded in a statement published on Thursday (March 23). She said: "Ruth Perry’s death was a tragedy. Our thoughts remain with Ruth’s family, friends and the school community at Caversham Primary. I am deeply sorry for their loss. Ahead of the coroner’s inquest, it would not be right to say too much. But I will say that the news of Ruth’s death was met with great sadness at Ofsted."

However, Mr Spielman rejected calls to stop inspections. We publish her statement in full below.

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, said the tragic event and Ofsted’s role in it must be subject to full scrutiny and lessons must be learned.

"This tragic event must now be subject to proper independent scrutiny, where the relevant facts in the period before, during and after the inspection are examined carefully. It is also right that the role played by the inspection process must also be examined and lessons learned.

“Securing high educational standards must never come at a cost to individual’s health, safety and wellbeing. It will be essential that any recommendations made by the coroner are considered fully by Ofsted, the government, and employers in exercising their duty of care to school leaders and staff.”

Ruth Perry took her own life on January 8. The Ofsted report following the inspection of the school in November was published on Tuesday (March 21). It made no reference to the headteacher’s passing.

According to Julia Waters, Ruth Perry’s sister, the distraught headteacher had been counting down to the publication of the report. In an interview with the BBC, Ms Waters added: “Every time I spoke to her, she would talk about the countdown. Every day she had this weight on her shoulders, hanging over her.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said Ruth Perry’s death is “an unspeakable tragedy”. Like many education unions, the NAHT has long campaigned for a change to the high-stakes and punitive nature of Ofsted inspection.

Mr Whiteman continued: “It is clear that school leaders up and down the country are placed under intolerable pressure by the current approach. It cannot be right that we treat dedicated professions in this way. Something has to change. This has to be a watershed moment.

"The anger and hurt being expressed currently by school staff is palpable. It is essential that all policy makers, including Ofsted, listen and respond.”

The National Education Union is campaigning for Ofsted to be replaced and is delivering a petition to this effect with more than 45,000 signatories to the Department for Education. The petition, which was started before the death of Ruth Perry, calls on the DfE to:

  • Replace Ofsted with a school accountability system which is supportive, effective and fair.
  • Work with teachers, leaders and other stakeholders to establish a commission to learn how school accountability is done in other high performing education nations.
  • Develop an accountability system which commands the trust and confidence of education staff as well as parents and voters.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary, added: “Ofsted should pause all its inspections and reflect upon the unmanageable and counterproductive stress they cause for school leaders, and the impact on leaders. This stress is well-documented in literature about Ofsted.

“That they are phoning leaders this week and initiating inspections speaks to the arrogance of Ofsted and their absolute lack of empathy. The claims by Ofsted to make fair or reliable judgements are not credible and this is part of the immense stress and distress for leaders.

“It’s time we urgently prioritise the welfare and wellbeing of the leaders and staff working so hard with children and young people in their community. We need a system which is supportive, effective, and fair.’’

Geoff Barton, general secretary at the Association of School and College Leaders, also backed the calls for Ofsted to pause inspections.

He said: “Ofsted should undertake an immediate review of the impact of inspections on the wellbeing of school and college leaders and staff, and a pause in the inspection cycle would allow for a period in which this could happen.

“The inspectorate must also commit to giving urgent consideration to reform of the inspection system to make it fairer and less punitive. In particular it must look at replacing the current system of graded judgements which reduce everything that a school or college does to a single blunt descriptor. These judgements do not do justice to schools and colleges, and negative outcomes are devastating to leaders, staff, and communities.”

Ofsted inspector Amanda Spielman responded in a statement published on Thursday (March 23). We publish that statement in full here:

Ruth Perry’s death was a tragedy. Our thoughts remain with Ruth’s family, friends and the school community at Caversham Primary. I am deeply sorry for their loss.

Ahead of the coroner’s inquest, it would not be right to say too much. But I will say that the news of Ruth’s death was met with great sadness at Ofsted. We know that inspections can be challenging and we always aim to carry them out with sensitivity as well as professionalism. Our school inspectors are all former or serving school leaders. They understand the vital work headteachers do, and the pressures they are under. For so many colleagues, this was profoundly upsetting news to hear.

This is unquestionably a difficult time to be a headteacher. School leaders worked hard during the pandemic to keep schools open and give the best education they could, while keeping vulnerable children safe. Since then, some children and families have struggled to readjust to normal life, and schools have had to respond with care and determination. School absence is high, mental health problems have increased, and external support services are unable to meet increased demand.

The sad news about Ruth has led to an understandable outpouring of grief and anger from many people in education. There have been suggestions about refusing to co-operate with inspections, and union calls to halt them entirely.

I don’t believe that stopping or preventing inspections would be in children’s best interests. Our aim is to raise standards, so that all children get a great education. It is an aim we share with every teacher in every school.

Inspection plays an important part. Among other things, it looks at what children are being taught, assesses how well behaviour is being taught and managed, and checks that teachers know what to do if children are being abused or harmed. We help parents understand how their child’s school is doing and we help schools understand their strengths and areas for improvement. It’s important for that work to continue.

The broader debate about reforming inspections to remove grades is a legitimate one, but it shouldn’t lose sight of how grades are currently used. They give parents a simple and accessible summary of a school’s strengths and weaknesses. They are also now used to guide government decisions about when to intervene in struggling schools. Any changes to the current system would have to meet the needs both of parents and of government.

The right and proper outcome of Ofsted’s work is a better education system for our children. To that end, we aim to do good as we go - and to make inspections as collaborative and constructive as we can. We will keep our focus on how inspections feel for school staff and on how we can further improve the way we work with schools. I am always pleased when we hear from schools that their inspection ‘felt done with, not done to’. That is the kind of feedback I want to hear in every case.

As teachers, school leaders and inspectors, we all work together in the best interests of children – and I’m sure that principle will frame all discussions about the future of inspection.

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I really cannot understand the point in the regulatory bodies in this country. I work in the NHS, where we have CQC inspections, the equivalent of OFSTED inspections in education. At a time when the NHS is on its knees and there is a shortage of teachers, one solution is to pump more money in to the system, so that it can be improved. However, invariably, this funding has to pass through various channels of organisations that have no involvement in teaching pupils or treating patients, each taking their cut, before what's left actually gets to where it is needed.
Another problem with the grades that are used in education and the NHS is that it can lead to complacency. There have been numerous times when I have seen a statistic saying that 'the National Average is 76%, but we're at 79%'. This encourages leaders of those organisations to think that because they're 'above average' then they don't have to try to improve. In the case of the grades given, Caversham Primary was downgraded from 'Outstanding' to 'Inadequate'. This clearly affects the emotions of those responsible for running the school, especially as the inspection is carried out by people who know nothing about the school. Were any complaints made between the school receiving its 'Outstanding' rating and the inspection in November 2022? Surely if there was a robust system in place for handling complaints, inspections where establishments are merely compared with other organisations could be scrapped. This would allow more money to be put to where it was needed, instead of being swallowed up by bureaucratic organisations who govern the primary providers.

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"Good people" are often sensitive, vulnerable, committed individuals who can be deeply hurt by formal negative reporting.
What seems to be overlooked here in the current reporting cycle is that this person is not the first to kill themselves after an Ofsted report. I am almost certain there was another case involving a female teacher in the last five years or so. Someone will have details. John

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