Ofsted and the government must demonstrate a duty of care

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders 

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve avoided writing about the recent events surrounding Ofsted. I don’t want it to seem that I’m grandstanding about the harrowing inquest into the death of headteacher Ruth Perry. This, after all, isn’t my loss but that of a family who have suffered the most awful grief and devastation that any of us can imagine. I have the greatest respect for Ruth’s sister, Julia Waters, and her determined dignity in calling for lessons to be learned. She has articulated the case for change far better than I can.

But this week, I am going to set out a few thoughts here to explain my thinking about why we at ASCL have joined colleagues at the NAHT in calling for an immediate pause to Ofsted inspections – and why I think that Ofsted and the government need to respond positively for the sake not only of school leaders and their staff, but also for inspectors themselves.

The fact is that the coroner at the end of the inquest into Ruth Perry’s death set out seven areas of concern that she intends to include in a regulation 28 report. The purpose of a regulation 28 report is to prevent future deaths. It is that serious. These aren’t big reforms to the inspection system but immediate health and safety matters. Here’s a summary:
  1. The impact on school leader welfare that the system will continue to have.
  2. The “almost complete absence of Ofsted training or published policy” in identifying and dealing with signs of distress in school leaders during an inspection.
  3. Absence of a clear path to raise concerns during an inspection if these cannot be resolved directly with the lead inspector.
  4. The confidentiality requirement after an inspection and the effect this may have on school leaders who fear discussing outcomes with others.
  5. Timescales for report publication.
  6. No learning review by Ofsted. “There is a risk of future deaths if there is only lip service paid to learning from tragedies like this.”
  7. Clarification of the wellbeing support available to school leaders.

Now, I recognise that Ofsted would say that it has addressed some of these points already. You can see the Chief Inspector’s statement here. 

But this is too vague for a matter of such seriousness. We are told Ofsted will “work hard” to address the areas of concern; it “has started to develop training”; it “will” address the issue of confidentiality through the inspection handbook. 

None of this, however, adds up to a concrete plan with a clear timeline to deal with each of the coroner’s concerns. And it all feels “done to” rather than “done with.”

It is essential that Ofsted sets a new tone; that it stops and reflects; that it has conversations with representative organisations; and that it agrees a plan of real substance which addresses each of the coroner’s concerns. 

We’re not even asking for Ofsted to implement every part of that plan before resuming inspections – just to have a plan in place that everyone can see and which gives leaders some sense of reassurance that this matter is being treated with the seriousness it deserves.

And this is not only needed by those who work in schools and colleges but by inspectors too. They need the reassurance that when they go into a school they do so knowing exactly how to respond if a senior leader shows signs of distress – that they have been given sufficient training and are able to draw on clear policies in dealing confidently with such situations. 

There are certainly more fundamental reforms which are needed to Ofsted – most notably getting rid of the single-word or phrase judgements which create so much stress in the system and feel so brutal when the judgement is negative. But that is not what we are talking about here. What we want is much more modest – it is simply about training, policies and procedures. 

The only involvement that is needed from the government is to agree to a pause. Everything else can be worked out between the inspectorate and the profession.

So, once again, we call on the Chief Inspector and the Education Secretary to put a temporary halt to inspections just long enough to develop a proper plan. There is nothing to stop them doing this and every reason for taking affirmative action. It is no more than asking for a duty of care to be shown to leaders and staff in our schools and colleges.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary.

Posted: 15/12/2023 10:32:35