It did not surprise me at all that Headteacher Ruth Perry’s awful and tragic suicide was, according to the coroner, “contributed to by an Ofsted inspection”. I can’t imagine what her family, friends and community have been going through this past year. Reading the account of her despair last Christmas as she anticipated the Ofsted inspector’s report is deeply harrowing.
Recently I stepped down as a school governor after a decade in the role. I have seen and heard about the pressures that the Ofsted inspection procedure puts schools under. In the corporate world we don’t spend the entire year discussing and worrying about our potential internal and external audits, but this is what happens in many schools. There is a culture of fear. Every week they are waiting for the phone to ring. You can almost hear the collective sigh of relief when school closes on a Wednesday, with the realisation that it is now too late in the week to receive ‘the call’. The alleviation is temporary, as the cycle begins all over again the following Monday. As school governors we felt this stress too, but we did not live it day to day.
The fear is not unwarranted. The biggest problem with the inspection process is how high-stakes it is. At the end of the inspection, if a school is rated as ‘inadequate’, the law says that it will be forced to become an academy.1 The school will have its legal status changed so that it is no longer funded by the local authority, and it will be forcibly moved into the structure of a multi-academy trust of the government’s choosing. It would be like a company failing an audit and immediately being pushed by law into being acquired by another firm. For Headteachers, the threat of having this event on your CV forever and having to deal with the inevitable backlash from the community is an incredible level of stress to cope with over a long period of time. Every week you are waiting for a phone call that could start a process that fundamentally changes your life.
You could correctly argue that it is the Headteacher’s job to ensure that the school isn’t ‘inadequate’ and is providing an excellent education for its pupils. A school can be judged as ‘outstanding’ in every aspect of its educational provision, but if the safeguarding arrangements are deemed to be ineffective it will lead to the school automatically being deemed as ‘inadequate’ overall. The forced academisation process will then begin. As school governors, we were told even before we joined that safeguarding is of the utmost importance — we completed regular mandatory training, it was on the agenda for our meetings, we questioned ourselves and our school leaders regularly, and we ensured that one member of the board had a specific ‘link’ role, visiting the school to review the safeguarding processes, procedures and records that were in place. We worked to close any gaps and improve wherever we saw something that could be better. Everyone I have met across the education sector knows how important safeguarding is. Having a snap inspection judgement of ‘inadequate’ for safeguarding that automatically leads to such a fundamental change for a school is brutal.
Being a school governor made me realise that working in a school is a vocation, not a job. Staff are paid so little for the level of responsibility that they have, particularly when compared to the private sector. Before I became a governor, I had no appreciation for how much time staff spend on social work. Schools need to work with pupils and their families to ensure that everyone is safe, fed and calm before they can begin to think about teaching and learning. As a Headteacher you may plan your day, your week, or your term, only to find that you suddenly need to re-prioritise everything in order to safeguard a pupil and their family. Our schools are there to provide education, but they do so much more.
For children with specific additional needs, there have always been challenges in the process to establish an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) for them. Once a plan is in place, additional government funding is made available to support the child. However, this funding is only sufficient to employ a one-to-one Teaching Assistant for half of the week, with the school needing to find the money for the other half. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of children that have specific additional needs has dramatically increased, adding financial stress to our schools. This stress is typically shouldered by the Headteacher along with their governing board. The responsibility resting on a Headteacher’s shoulders is immense, despite being in a job that could be paid as little as the starting salary for a graduate who joins an investment bank.2
Schools are stretched physically, mentally and financially in meeting the needs of their pupils, particularly after the pandemic. Currently, with so many major news stories, this issue seems to get so little coverage. It is difficult for me to understand how a Headteacher’s job can be tolerable over the long term. Headteachers need support, not out-of-the blue snap judgements. I would love to see a system that took a supportive approach instead of what we have today. If a school’s provision is judged to be ‘inadequate’, wouldn’t it be much healthier for everyone if resources were deployed to help the school get back to being ‘good’ again, working with the Headteacher and their staff to achieve it? Every school is different; every ‘inadequate’ school will require something specific to help it get to where it needs to be. Forcing a school into automatic academisation and merging it into a multi-academy trust is a disruptive ‘solution’ that can ruin careers without necessarily bringing the benefits that it is meant to.3 The current process has been shown to have contributed to a loss of life. It has to change, as the changes that have recently been put in place don’t go anywhere near far enough.
If you find yourself affected by the topics discussed here, please know that you can seek support from the following organisations: In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email [email protected] or [email protected]. In the US, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988, chat on 988lifeline.org, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counsellor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.
- Under the Academies Act 2010. ↩
- In 2023, a Headteacher of the smallest schools could start on £50,122 per year. The median starting salary for a graduate working for an investment bank is £55,000 per year. ↩
- National Education Union: The NEU case against academisation. Of particular note is the section that states that the NEU “…found that schools who join MATs are actually less likely to improve their Ofsted rating and are, in fact, more likely to see a regression in their next Ofsted assessment.” ↩