IN MEMORIAM, RUTH PERRY
Ruth Perry, a Head Teacher at a Primary School in Surrey took her own life – a suicide triggered by a damning OfSTED inspection of her school, and prefaced by an unimaginably drawn-out horror of OfSTED’s process there. Hers was deep, moral injury, the result of corresponding moral violence.
Don’t imagine Ruth to be the first. Almost 40 years ago a student of mine at the University of East Anglia completed her Masters dissertation: an observation of the process and impact of an OfSTED inspection. Only at the end of her study did she realise that she had unwittingly been documenting the slide into suicide of a colleague, similarly brought down by the inspection.
On June 16, 2011 Channel4 News recorded the following:
Since 1998, coroners’ inquests into the suicides of at least eight teachers have heard that they took their lives shortly before or after Ofsted inspections.
In 2009, 44-year-old Sarah Giddy, a teacher at St Helen’s Primary School in Abbotsham, Devon, hanged herself ahead of an Ofsted inspection after complaining she was overworked and stressed.
And headmaster Jed Holmes, 53, committed suicide a day before Ofsted inspectors were due at Hampton Hargate Primary School in Peterborough. He died from carbon monoxide poisoning after lighting a charcoal barbecue in his home.
Of course, these people may have had underlying mental health issues, no doubt. But knowing this might just be the case, would you be comfortable with piling on enough pressure to trigger the final solution to unhappiness and anxiety?
Well, Amanda Spielman shows all the signs of being comfortable. Who she? She is the CEO of OfSTED. SCHOOLS WEEK, a digital platform for investigative reporting on schooling, have reported Amanda’s denials of the pressures of inspections and her blaming “vested interests” and too much attention being paid to the student voice for the ‘negative narrative’ around OfSTED. (Her closest experience of schools prior to taking up this role was working for an educational charity set up by hedge fund managers – she has no experience of schools or classrooms, and none of working alongside teachers. The Parliamentary Education Select Committee, in an unusual move, originally opposed her appointment.) But, note – too much attention paid to the student voice, she says…?! Let’s take a quick look here. OfSTED is also responsible for inspecting child protection systems. You may recall that between 1997 and 2013 an estimated 1,400 children were systematically sexually abused in Rotherham. In 2006, when the abuse was in its stride, OfSTED reported that “it appeared that vulnerable children and young people are kept safe from abuse and exploitation”:
(https://www.rotherham.gov.uk/downloads/file/279/independent-inquiry-into-child-sexual-exploitation-in-rotherham – see 13.26 on p.106)
and in 2008 reported that children’s social care had slipped from ‘Good’ to ‘Adequate’ – whatever that shift meant, though the report I cite notes that this will have given dangerously false reassurances. But – ‘it appeared that….” – “Appeared – “?!?! That claim simply does not ‘appear’ in the social scientific lexicon of methodological terms.
Not only is Amanda and OfSTED cloth-eared to its history of personal violence, in denial about its capacity to ruin lives and careers, it cannot even boast a valid inspection process. If you will excuse the self-advertisement, in my book SCHOOL: AN EXPOSÉ, I show how OfSTED’s own self-evaluations find that they cannot guarantee either consistency of judgement between inspectors, or the validity of its methodology. Here’s a revealing quote from their internal report of 2017
“While this study can suggest conclusions about reliability, it is less able to provide evidence on the validity of inspection.” [Item 12, p.6]
In methodological terms – in terms of common scientific principles – OfSTED inspection processes are a disgrace. OfSTED claims to make a judgement of quality in just 1 or 2 days of one of the most complex, ever-changing institutions society has created – a school – and on the basis of parachuting into lessons for 15 minutes (along with what are disingenuously called ‘deep-dives’). As a research supervisor, manager and examiner of more than 40 years standing in the field of education I struggle to recall an example of research that has been validated with the gossamer-thin, prejudicial, politicised, information-lite, opinion-based evidence typical of OfSTED inspections. And remember, OfSTED has its head tilted ‘down’ the system at how practitioners comply with education policy; it does not look ‘up’ at how policy aligns with (or not) the complexity of practice and the wisdom of teachers. OfSTED is the key inquisitorial mechanism of the command-and-control approach to schools and teachers.
I was a member of a team which evaluated OfSTED in its inspection of Summerhill School in 1999. We did so as part of the legal team that countered OfSTED’s attempt to close that school on the basis of one of these, almost hilariously inept inspections. Well, re-inspections, actually. Inspectors had done the work and concluded, in their draft report, that the school was doing reasonably well. They were ordered back in (by the sociopathic (?) CEO at the time, Chris Woodhead, and his political overseer, David Blunket) to produce a damning report, which they duly did. Blunket wanted closed a school which demonstrated reasonable results on the basis of (voluntary) attendance at a fraction of the classes state schooling insists upon. We were able to show that OfSTED reversed their draft report with the cunning use of language switching such as changing “as many as” to “as few as”….and with the ingenious device of deletion: the draft report had stated, “by the time they are 16, pupils attain reasonable standards”. It was taken out in the final report. So underwhelmed was the judicial review (Schools Tribunal) by OfSTED’s procedures, and so shocked by OfSTED’s exposed lie that they did not hold a ‘blacklist’ of target schools, that it ordered future inspections at Summerhill to be chaperoned by an independent, expert observer.
OfSTED was the creation of a Conservative government, blindly adopted by Tony Blair’s incoming labour government, uncomprehending, not just of the damage it caused, but of its clear Right-wing, technocratic trappings. Had Labour’s 1997 manifesto included something like this phrase taken from its 1964 manifesto: “Labour has resolved to humanise the whole administration of the state -“ then OfSTED would surely have been one of the first casualties (- along, perhaps, with elements of the Department for Work and Pensions which wreaks not dissimilar violence and despair on people’s lives). OfSTED stands as a solid block to the re-entry of a much-needed Humanism in both schooling and curriculum.
I wish Ruth Perry were alive to read what I am about to include. It might have given her just a little comfort. It is, in fact, the wisdom of a 13 year-old who had been through the OfSTED inspection at Summerhill School, and had attended the hearings at the Royal Court of Justice where OfSTED was so humiliated. Here is the “voice of the pupil” that Amanda Spielman was so urgent to suppress, talking of the inspection process:
“I don’t know how they did it, how they managed to miss the point so badly. Maybe subconsciously, they want Summerhill to fail because they missed the chance to come here themselves. Maybe they should come and finish their childhood so they can leave everyone else to get on with theirs.”