UK teacher's death puts spotlight on school inspections
LONDON, Dec 8, 2023 (BSS/AFP) - School inspections in England will be temporarily paused next week after a coroner said an assessment from the already under-fire system contributed to a headteacher killing herself.
Ruth Perry, 53, took her own life in January after seeing a draft inspection report downgrading her school from "outstanding" to "inadequate".
Her death has raised questions about the single-word labelling of schools by inspection agency Ofsted and the stress heaped on already under-pressure staff during assessments.
Perry's death has come as England's state-funded schools struggle with a host of challenges from government under-funding to overcoming the loss of in-presence teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Teachers repeatedly walked out in 2022 and 2023 over pay, resources and workload amid an economy-wide cost of living crisis brought on by rising inflation.
According to official figures, a record number of teachers quit in 2021-22, with nearly 40,000 or 8.8 percent of the workforce leaving.
After a meeting with Perry's family last week, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said the government was working to improve accountability in the current system.
Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said inspections next week would be delayed by a day to allow its lead inspectors to meet.
She said the agency had already made a raft of changes including faster publication of reports and better training inspectors to recognise teachers' anxiety.
But the UK opposition Labour party, which has a massive lead in polls ahead of a general election expected next year, has announced plans to scrap the single-word school ratings and replace them with a "report card".
After Perry's death, teachers denounced what they called the extreme pressure caused by the inspection system and the unfairness of everything a school does being reduced to one word.
Perry, a mother of two teenage daughters, had told her husband the system -- which rates schools as either "outstanding", "good", "requires improvement" or "inadequate" -- was "inhumane".
She accused the inspector who carried out the survey of her primary school in Reading, west of London, in November 2022 of being a "bully" with an agenda.
Coroner Heidi Connor on Thursday ruled that her "death was likely contributed to by the Ofsted inspection" and that the process had "lacked fairness" and been "at times rude and intimidating".
The inspection report published in March found Perry's school to be "good" in every category apart from leadership and management, where it was judged to be "inadequate".
Ofsted's Spielman has defended the one-word verdicts handed out to schools saying that they are useful for parents.
But National Education Union (NEU) general secretary Daniel Kebede said lessons needed to be learned from Perry's death.
"We must listen to leaders when they warn that Ofsted inspections currently feel too pressured and too isolating," he said.
"The burdens that inspection places on schools and school leaders must be immediately lifted to give schools relief from the pressures that the inquest has so tragically revealed," he said.
Another union leader said the coroner's verdict had to be a catalyst for change.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was "imperative that the inspection system is reformed to reduce stakes which are currently far too high" due to its one word "judgements".
- 'Urgent lessons' -
It was right that Ofsted inspected "first and foremost in the interests of children, their parents and carers", she said.
"But in the light of Mrs Perry's sad death, it's also vital that we do all we can to minimise stress and anxiety when we inspect," she added.
Perry's family say they will continue pushing for a complete rethink of the Ofsted process.
Speaking after the inquest, Perry's sister Julia Waters, a university professor, said the tragedy had left "an unfillable hole" in their lives.
She called on the government to learn "urgent lessons" and said the announced changes "do not go anywhere near far enough".
"The inquest into Ruth's death has shown the brutal inhumanity of the system of Ofsted inspections," she said.
"Ofsted likes to judge people with single word labels. We could judge the Ofsted system with our own labels: callous, perverse and inhumane."