Former Ofsted chief tells LBC Ruth Perry inspection was error-free and they apologised for 'distress' her death caused

3 April 2024, 09:41

Ms Spielman said: “I absolutely did what I think was the right thing at a tremendously difficult time"
Ms Spielman said: “I absolutely did what I think was the right thing at a tremendously difficult time". Picture: Alamy

By Asher McShane

The former chief inspector of Ofsted has refused to concede that her organisation made errors in the handling of the inspection that contributed to the death of headteacher Ruth Perry.

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Ms Perry killed herself last year after Caversham primary school’s grade was lowered from outstanding to inadequate.

The coroner ruled that the Ofsted inspection was a contributing factor in her death.

In an interview with Rachel Johnson on her Difficult Women podcast, Ms Spielman said: “I absolutely did what I think was the right thing at a tremendously difficult time, when it would have been very easy to say we got the inspection wrong. I couldn’t do that. I didn’t do that.”

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Asked why she had apologised to Perry’s family, Spielman said: “We were apologising for the distress that resulted.”

She was asked how she felt about leading Ofsted at the time of a “fabulous, much-loved head teacher’s death” - to which Ms Spielman replied: “It was deeply, deeply unpleasant … So you’d see Guardian headlines saying: ‘Ofsted is failing because it’s not supporting schools’ – it’s a bit like saying the driving test agency is failing because it’s not giving people driving lessons.”

“Sometimes it’s like a doctor; sometimes the doctor has to give you a difficult diagnosis. And you cannot not be upset by it, however kindly and sympathetically they give it to you.

“And it’s the same for Ofsted inspectors. There are times when they have to give people really tough messages. And yet, unless problems are made explicit and acknowledged, the right things can’t happen, to move things on and to get things to the place that they should be for children. So these difficult conversations have to happen.”

Spielman added: “The thing I have found people incredibly unwilling to acknowledge and discuss is that there is no possible way that you can ever make everybody perfectly happy and totally protect the interests of children, and make sure that you never have to say anything to an adult that could disappoint or upset them.”

Her comments came as a new survey shows that more than four out of five teachers in England believe a new system of inspection should be introduced because Ofsted has "many problems”.

The majority of teachers (90%) said they do not believe single-word judgments are a fair reflection of the performance of a school.

A poll, of more than 4,500 National Education Union (NEU) teacher members in state schools in England, suggests 62% feel the inspection system causes them mental ill-health and 59% say it affects their home life.

The findings were released on the first day of the NEU's annual conference in Bournemouth.

Teachers will vote on whether the NEU, the largest teaching union in the UK, should lobby political parties ahead of the next general election to endorse its campaign to "replace Ofsted".

A motion, due to be debated on Wednesday, says the union should support members in "balloting for, and taking, strike action" when "mocksteds", deep-dives and excessive workload have arisen through Ofsted pressures.

It comes after Ofsted has come under greater scrutiny after the suicide of headteacher Ruth Perry.

Mrs Perry took her own life after an Ofsted report downgraded her Caversham Primary School in Reading, Berkshire, from its highest rating to its lowest over safeguarding concerns.

Professor Julia Waters, the sister of Mrs Perry, is due to address the NEU's annual conference on Friday.

The survey, carried out between February 6 and 20, suggests only 3% of teachers believe Ofsted acts as a "reliable and trusted arbiter of standards" and just 4% believe it acts independently of Government.

More than four in five (82%) agreed with a statement that said Ofsted has so many problems that it "would be better to start afresh with a new system of inspection".

One respondent said: "Ofsted has created toxic environments, resulting in damaging pressure on staff and ending the careers of excellent staff."

An Ofsted spokesman said: "We inspect schools on behalf of children and their parents, but we are very mindful of the pressures on school staff.

"We have already made several changes to inspection over the last year, focused on school leaders' and staff welfare. But we have promised to go further to strengthen confidence in our work.

"That's why we launched our Big Listen last month. We're asking parents, children, heads, teachers and other professionals to help shape the way we work in future and make sure all children have the best possible education and life chances."

A Department for Education spokesman said: "Our plan to ensure every child benefits from a world-class education is working with 90% of schools now judged to be good or outstanding, up from 68% in 2010.

"Ofsted is central to driving forward that improvement. Their independent inspections are vital to ensuring children are safe in school, parents are informed, and the department is able to intervene where strictly necessary.

"We have worked closely with Ofsted to ensure inspections are conducted with professionalism and compassion. We are supporting Sir Martyn Oliver's work through the Big Listen, to hear from parents, teachers and education experts to understand where more improvements can be made."