It could have been me...
This blog is shared on behalf of a headteacher who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, but feels that their story needs to be told.
The tragic death of a much-beloved headteacher, Ruth Perry, brought it all back. I did not expect to be so triggered by the news of her experience and had thought that I was doing fine after the devastation of my own school’s Ofsted inspection. Little did I know that the trauma buried deep inside came hurtling back, leaving me feeling broken, upset, angry and hugely resentful. As human leaders, we bury our deep emotions as we place the well-being of others over ourselves. However, I cannot be silent as through the tears that keep on coming – the dam has been broken, there is no going back. This is my story of how the inspection affected me, and still does today.
My school was inspected the day after October half-term 2021. I remember when half term arrived, I thanked an exhausted and emotional staff force in the staff room for their hard work and commitment to children and colleagues as this was the most difficult term yet, post-lockdown. The magnitude of what we had to do, what we were doing, the high absence rates amongst pupils and staff had placed considerable pressure on a one form entry primary school. And yet, through the seven weeks of the first half term of the new academic year, we somehow managed to survive, teach well, and carry on with curriculum development which was halted over the period of lockdown and disruptions. My mantra had always been, we do what is best for the children, never for Ofsted! During this period of pressure and turmoil, I supported several teachers and staff facing huge personal issues and upheavals in their lives, These circumstances are important to note as it gives context to a school trying its best to serve our community.
When I received the call, I remember telling the staff, ‘We’ve got this. Ofsted will see the hard work we have done, and the efforts we have placed to put our children first and foremost in what we do’. There was considerable anxiety and I remember telling staff to go home, there is nothing more to be done. Just teach as you teach every day.
I was naïve. I recall now that trusted members of my leadership team were suspicious of the HMI and the additional inspector as the way they were questioned, led them to believe that we have already been judged – the inspectors were looking for evidence to back the case for the ultimate label.
It is only when I read Caversham Primary’s Ofsted report that I knew our school had been judged through a similar lens. Safeguarding was judged ineffective, and I am unable to say more on this to protect the children I still serve. I will say that the ‘lack of’ evidence is contentious, as these ‘issues’ were rectified immediately. As I repeatedly said to the inspectors, nothing we do as a school was to deliberately make any child unsafe. In fact, it has always been the opposite, and Ofsted confirmed this in its own report – “This means that pupils are potentially at risk or may not get the help and support they need.” In feedback sessions with me, and members of the governing board, the inspectors confirmed that all children were safe. They confirmed that we had taken the right steps in safeguarding children, it is the paperwork that was not obvious, and the inexperience of some governors in helping to create an effective culture of safeguarding. I wish at this point to ask readers to remember the context and remember the timing of this inspection.
Our school was judged inadequate in early November of 2021 because safeguarding was judged ineffective; the report was not published until February of 2022. There was nothing I could say or do to change this. If you read our initial inspection report, there were many, many things we were doing well as we were judged Good in Behaviour and Attitude, and also Personal Development. These matter, but also did not matter. The great Ofsted conundrum! Prioritising pupil, staff and family mental health did not seem to matter. High absence rates due to Covid or the effect of Covid did not seem to matter. Covid was not taken into consideration at all even though it was less than a year after lockdown was lifted. I could tell you about how our 3 weakest readers were so anxious reading in front of the inspector and could not ‘perform’ so guess what that did to how Reading was judged?
Do not get me wrong. If you used the Ofsted framework, in that inspection, our school was not Outstanding, maybe not even Good. However, we are not, and we never were, inadequate.
I remember breaking down in front of both female inspectors. I remember how devastated and emotional I was. I challenged them to help me understand how I can carry on with leadership, and yes, I do take it personally, being judged inadequate. I asked them to understand how a humane organisation could treat people and communities this way. I asked them to reflect how they would feel, and act, as both inspectors were former headteachers, and had ‘sat’ in my chair. I asked them to help me understand how, when my heart and soul had been given to this role, when I sleep, breathe, and live this job at the expense of my family, and well-being, I could carry on. I remember that although I thought they heard, they did not listen. Both said that ‘I now had the mandate to turn the school around’. It is only now that I can see that I do not require their mandate at all – I have always served my school community, I have always had the best interest of staff and pupils at heart, I have always pursued academic excellence but not at the expense of well-being. Our school priorities are timely and well planned, ensuring that staff are supported to teach, and lead subjects well.
I had to be silent on our outcome for seven weeks, through Christmas and New Year. I had to reassure a staff team who knew something was up, and yet I could not speak of what had happened. I had to reassure parents that all was ok, and that the report would be communicated to them when published. I had to speak to potential parents who wanted to know if we had been inspected recently.
When I read Ruth’s story, it brought it all crashing back. The sleepless nights, the crying endlessly at home with my husband picking me up each time I said I cannot do this anymore. My children trying their best to support an unhappy mother who looked lost. The feeling of being a failure and, of failing. The over thinking of the impact of this outcome – what would our parents say and do? How are we ever going to come out of this as a small school dependent on pupil numbers to survive?
I remember Bonfire Night 2021, a school event attended by hundreds of parents, children, and members of the community where I had to make a speech, knowing the judgement, but unable to say anything. I remember feeling devastated and proud at the same time as I peered at a lit-up playground at what we had truly achieved during, and after the pandemic. Our school kept a community safe, cared for, and alive. Our ethos of inclusion, courage, service, and collaboration saw us through a time like no other. I have been told that my words that night were inspirational and hopeful. This is the one thing I do not remember. I just remember feeling totally exhausted, drained and broken and thinking, there is no way back. I felt alone.
Of course, writing this today means that I did ok. I am still here, just! Six working months later, Ofsted came back and turned a monitoring inspection into a full inspection. Oh, we are now an RI school don’t you know? I suppose I should be grateful, and yet I am actually resentful. Nothing much has changed since the last, devastating grading. I had to work harder to ensure the staff were supported mentally, emotionally, and physically. I had to work harder at pre-empting difficult conversations with parents and consider carefully how we can increase pupil numbers after the inspection. I had to work harder when some parents use the judgement to unfairly (in my opinion) criticise the school for any perceived errors or complain about things.
What has changed is how cynical I have become. My heart has been broken, and I am unsure how to mend it. I have had thoughts of leaving headship, in fact, leaving the sector as I observe injustice in the way education serves all our children, and our staff who work tirelessly every single day. There is too much politics, division, and unhealthy competition, with inspections being part of the battleground. I have battled and argued and reached out to people in rather high places to be listened to. Some listened, some helped in ways they will never know, and to these people, who are still here for me today, my deep gratitude for their ongoing support. I do not have to imagine Ruth’s experience of Ofsted as I believe it was also mine. However, I can only imagine what the impact of the inspection did to her, on top of all the other pressures that life, the job, and work can bring.
Part of her story is mine too. This cannot be the legacy we leave behind. The way schools are inspected and ‘labelled’ must change immediately. If Ofsted is about improving schools, then truly help leaders improve their schools by highlighting to the school, the results of their audit, and allowing schools to rapidly improve. Do not leave broken leaders behind when you leave on the second day, without turning back. Do not deny us a voice to raise our concerns appropriately. Be the humane organisation that education requires, so that schools, leaders, and communities can continually improve together, rather than leaving a trail of devastation without ever looking back. There must never be another tragedy like the life and death of Ruth Perry, and countless others. Be the tool for successful school leadership, and not the sword that maims, injure, or worse, destroys.