Sister of Ruth Perry urges headteachers to resist Ofsted ‘culture of fear’

Headteachers should undermine Ofsted’s “culture of fear” by refusing to cooperate with the schools inspectorate or work as inspectors, the sister of headteacher Ruth Perry has told a conference of school leaders.

Prof Julia Waters said her sister had been “destroyed” by Ofsted’s critical inspection of her school late last year, which downgraded it from outstanding to inadequate, and that her family had been left with an “intense, painful, overwhelming” sense of loss after her death.

“Going public about these circumstances, and the link with the Ofsted inspection of Ruth’s school, has added new layers of complication, pain and outrage to this grief,” Waters told the annual conference of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT).

Julia Waters speaks at a lectern with a microphone
Julia Waters addressing the NAHT conference in Telford, Shropshire, on Saturday. Photograph: NAHT/PA

“But we had to speak out, because Ruth was not the first headteacher to take her own life after an Ofsted inspection.”

Perry’s death and the link to the Ofsted inspection set off a wave of anger among school leaders at the pressure and mental toll imposed.

However, Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of schools in England, and Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, have said they remain happy with Ofsted’s use of single judgments, with Spielman saying she regarded the inspection of Perry’s school as “sound”.

Waters said: “I confess – and this will haunt me for the rest of my life – that I had not fully appreciated how fatally destructive a poor Ofsted judgment could be to a dedicated headteacher like Ruth.

“Since going public, however, I have been contacted by countless headteachers who do understand only too well quite how despairing and hopeless Ruth must have felt.”

Waters added: “Here are some single-word judgments that have been levelled at Ofsted inspections by headteachers like yourselves who have contacted me: arbitrary, subjective, unsubstantiated, callous, punitive, evil, inhumane, brutal, traumatic.

“Yet Ofsted’s own self-ass essment – supported by Gillian Keegan – remains that everything is just fine.”

Waters said she would not rest until there had been meaningful reforms of the inspectorate.

“I call for an urgent, independent review of Ofsted’s framework, systems and culture. Expose Ofsted to the transparency, scrutiny and accountability you require of others.

“And what if Ofsted still won’t budge? Then it’s up to you – headteachers and teaching unions – to make Ofsted budge, to undermine their culture of fear from below and from within” by refusing to work as part-time inspectors or displaying banners with Ofsted inspection grades on their schools, she said.

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“Please, stand up for Ruth; stand up for yourselves; stand up to Ofsted. Speak out. Take down your banners. Hand in your badges,” Waters told the conference in Telford.

A spokesperson for Ofsted said: “We always want inspections to be constructive and collaborative and in the vast majority of cases school leaders agree that they are.” Spielman has written to Reading borough council with an offer to meet Perry’s family.

A primary school in Cambridge has said it will launch a judicial review against Ofsted after a recent inspection downgraded it to inadequate, with the school’s headteacher telling the BBC she was left feeling “crushed” by the process.

Sarah Jarman, the headteacher of Queen Emma primary school in Cambridge, said: “The experience of that day has shattered every piece of self-belief I have, both in myself and the Ofsted system. Without doubt, the negative connotations will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

Ofsted said: “We completely refute these allegations.”

More than 20 judicial reviews against Ofsted inspections have been taken over the past 15 years. In most cases the legal action has been withdrawn or settled before reaching court.

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the NAHT, has said the union’s lawyers are also “putting the finishing touches” on bringing legal action against Ofsted.

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