Senior teacher Rob Dyson* says his last Ofsted inspection remains a “trauma”. Drinking tea in the staff room of the academy in the north of England after the inspector left, having delivered the verdict that the school had plummeted from “outstanding” to “requires improvement”, he says everyone was “ashen faced”. Noticing that the deputy head had turned a “terrible colour” and looked unwell, Dyson ushered him into the toilets.
“He started having a heart attack right there in front of me,” Dyson recalls. “It was absolutely shocking.”
Dyson got home that evening, after his colleague had gone to hospital in an ambulance, and took the dog for a walk. “I stood on the riverbank and I was just looking at that river. I had this awful sense of injustice. Our school was warm and friendly; it was absolutely bubbling,” he says. “But I snapped out of it and came home.”
He explains that this sort of “horrible” rating isn’t just crushing for the leadership team – it also sends the school into a downward spiral. “Your funding falls because parents don’t want to send their kids to you, and the staff you need to get you out of this hole start leaving,” he says.
The school looked into appealing the rating, but Dyson says although they felt they had a strong case, “the legal costs were just too punitive”.
Andrew Morrish, a former headteacher who co-founded Headrest, a helpline for heads in crisis, during the pandemic, says the pressure and fear surrounding Ofsted inspections has become “entirely too much”.
“We have had calls from partners of heads saying: ‘They are going to end up in intensive care. They are having a nervous breakdown. Please talk to them and make them see a doctor.’”
He insists that heads aren’t afraid of scrutiny. What terrifies them, he says, is how “inconsistent and flawed” these high-stakes inspections can be.
He argues that heads in inner city schools in rundown areas with families in crisis and too few social workers have the odds stacked against them. He says they are ringing the helpline panicking because they know their safeguarding isn’t ticking all the Ofsted boxes. “They say: ‘I keep calling the local authority about referring this child and nothing is happening. They are kicking off in class, or showing sexualised behaviour copied from home,’” he explains. “If Ofsted turn up and see that, you’re in special measures.”
Morrish argues that this is “crackers” and penalises heads for helping children: “These heads are keeping these children in to protect them, because no one else is there for them.”
The recent arguments about the way Ofsted operates followed reports about the death of headteacher Ruth Perry, who took her own life in January.
Her family claims that her suicide was because her school was downgraded by Ofsted, an allegation that then prompted an outpouring of anger from teachers around the country. Yet most are too frightened to put their names to any criticism, paranoid that it will count against their school or that they might trigger “that call”, notifying them that the inspector is arriving tomorrow.
The head of a primary in London, which had three inspections in four years because it had been downgraded, says the pressure of awaiting a call from Ofsted during that time “was unbearable”. Each morning he knew they might call before midday announcing their arrival the next day – only after 12.15pm could he breathe freely. “Sometimes I would just sit at my desk unable to do anything, waiting for the phone to ring.”
On Friday Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, broke days of silence to express how “deeply sorry” she was about the “tragedy” of Perry’s death. She said the “grief and anger” expressed by many in education was understandable.
However, commenting on “suggestions about refusing to cooperate with inspections, and unions’ calls to halt them entirely”, she stressed that stopping inspections “would not be in children’s best interests”.
“Our aim is to raise standards, so that all children get a great education,” she said.
However, the London primary head, who asked to remain anonymous, insisted that “schools are living in a culture of absolute fear”, which does nothing to help children.
“Heads are coming together and saying: ‘Which hoops did Ofsted get you to jump through? What were they looking for?’” he says. “And I want to know: where are the children in all this?”
The Observer spoke to three former Ofsted inspectors who have all recently handed in their badges because they felt deeply uncomfortable with the way the system worked.
One director of education at an academy trust who was an inspector describes questioning a subject head in a school and realising “she was actually shaking”. He reassured her that any issues were minor and would not affect the overall rating – knowing that such reassurance was strictly against Ofsted rules – because he felt so uncomfortable.
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“Even if people don’t get to the point where they are considering suicide, there is a very serious issue with mental health here,” he says. “I have no problem with accountability, but these high-stakes inspections are unbearably stressful.”
He also worried that inspectors who were sent into primary schools often only had experience of secondary education and “scant understanding of what primary and especially early years education is about”.
Another head and former inspector, who admits she signed up because learning the inside track on what Ofsted was looking for might “save my own school”, took part in an inspection where the head had been in post for just over two weeks. The school was put into special measures before the new head had a chance to turn it around.
“The lead inspector tends to have a view before they arrive on what the verdict will be,” she says. “They make up their minds in 10 minutes, and everything else is about justifying that.”
A third former inspector says: “It doesn’t matter how nice or nasty you are as an inspector – you still have to stick rigidly to applying the framework, and I fundamentally disagreed with what it was measuring.”
She adds: “Judging schools with one word and making that public is simply wrong.”
Cate Knight, who recently left teaching after 20 years to become a youth mental health worker, largely because of the “untenable” pressure created by Ofsted, agrees. “Imagine everything you’ve worked for over many years disappearing on the basis of just one word,” she says. “Schools and communities can be ruined on the basis of that word.”
Knight couldn’t sleep or eat during Ofsted inspections. “I started losing my hair because of stress,” she says. “I’ve seen headteachers physically and mentally broken. I saw one man break down in tears and walk out. He was five years off retiring, but he didn’t ever come back.”
This week more than 2,000 teachers responded to a tweet from a headteacher asking for their anonymous experiences of Ofsted.
One deputy head posted about her recent inspection: “This is something I don’t want to experience again, so I have 4 years to work out what to do next. I love teaching, however I am not willing to allow my own mental health to be put at risk like that again.”
Another said: “Horrific. After 12 years’ teaching at 33 years old I want to quit. I cannot put myself through Ofsted again. The interrogation and trauma felt like a court case.”
Sinéad McBrearty, chief executive of Education Support, a charity focusing on teachers’ mental health, says Perry’s “tragic” death has galvanised the sector to push for change.
“It’s particularly personal for heads,” she says. “People want to honour Perry’s memory by acknowledging that there is an issue with all this pressure and stress.
“We have a duty of care to children to look after the people who are taking care of them,” she adds. “And right now I see a really bleak picture of a profession that is really in distress.”
* Name has been changed
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or email [email protected] or [email protected]. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.