Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of schools in England, said she was “deeply sorry” over the death of Berkshire headteacher Ruth Perry, and backed “legitimate” debate over how Ofsted inspects schools in the future.
But Spielman, in her first public comments since Perry’s family attributed her death to a harsh Ofsted judgment, rejected calls by local authorities and school leaders to suspend inspections, defending them as necessary to help schools improve.
“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,” Spielman said.
Ofsted inspectors visited Perry’s primary school in Reading last year, and told her it would be downgraded to Ofsted’s lowest ranking because of gaps they found in the school’s safeguarding administration.
Perry’s sister, Julia Waters, said her family were in no doubt she had taken her own life in January as a “direct result” of the pressure put on her by the Ofsted inspection, which downgraded the school from outstanding to inadequate.
On Thursday the National Education Union delivered a petition with 52,000 signatures to the Department for Education in London, calling for an overhaul of school inspection. Niamh Sweeney, the NEU’s deputy general secretary, said: “It is clearly absurd that the whole of school life is condensed into a single-word judgment.”
Perry’s family have also called for an urgent review of Spielman’s organisation, calling its inspection regime “fatally flawed”. One head teacher initially threatened to bar Ofsted inspectors from entering her school last week, while others have stripped Ofsted logos and inspection grades from their school publications in protest.
Other heads have pledged to stage peaceful protests during Ofsted inspections, including allowing teachers to wear black armbands and display photographs of Perry.
Spielman said: “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 cooperate 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.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the refusal to temporarily suspend inspections was “a terrible mistake,” describing Ofsted’s response as “tin-eared” and lacking in concern for the wellbeing of school leaders.
“Ofsted has completely underestimated the strength of feeling among educational professionals. The warm words and sympathy they have expressed are welcome, but they are simply not enough,” Whiteman said.
“School leaders want to see tangible actions being taken to reduce the intolerable pressure that the current inspection regime places on everyone in schools, and they want to see those actions now.”
Spielman suggested that changes were possible, saying: “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.”
Spielman, whose term as His Majesty’s chief inspector expires at the end of the year, added: “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.”
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 and the domestic abuse helpline is 0808 2000 247. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the US, the suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org