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Ofsted ‘must make changes in areas highlighted by Ruth Perry inquest’

Ruth Perry’s family have welcomed the Education Committee’s report (Andrew Matthews/PA)
Ruth Perry’s family have welcomed the Education Committee’s report (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Ofsted must make major changes to school inspections and action is needed particularly in areas of concern highlighted by the inquest into the death of headteacher Ruth Perry, the Education Committee has said.

The House of Commons cross-party committee published a report into Ofsted’s work with schools and highlighted the need for “more action” to address “widespread and deep concern” about the inspections system.

The report recommended the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted – headed by new chief inspector Sir Martyn Oliver – develop an alternative to the single-word judgements “as a priority” and called on the two bodies to review the support mechanisms available to school leaders during and after an inspection.

Professor Julia Waters
Ruth Perry’s sister Professor Julia Waters (Andrew Matthews/PA)

The contents of the report were welcomed by Mrs Perry’s family.

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

In December, a coroner concluded the Ofsted inspection on November 15-16 in 2022 “likely contributed” to Mrs Perry’s death.

Since the inquest, the watchdog has made some changes and it has published a policy on how school inspections can be paused in exceptional circumstances – including where the headteacher requires support.

Referring to the Education Committee’s report, Professor Julia Waters, Mrs Perry’s sister, said: “My family and I can only hope that this report and its recommendations will help to bring about the change needed to prevent other tragedies from occurring in the future.”

She called on Gillian Keegan to act, saying: “The Education Secretary has been keen in the past to ask people to congratulate her on what a great job she has done, while others have sat down and done nothing. It’s time she got to her feet now to end single-word judgements.”

The committee will seek regular updates in the year ahead from Ofsted on how it is responding to the areas of concern set out in the coroner’s report regarding the death of Mrs Perry.

Vigil for Ruth Perry
A vigil for Ruth Perry (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Chair of the committee, Conservative MP Robin Walker, said: “The bulk of the evidence we received expressed widespread and deep concern about how the system works.

“We repeatedly heard that Ofsted has lost the trust of a significant chunk of the teaching profession, and leaders.”

He added: “Changes to inspection practice announced by Ofsted last year were welcome, but more action is required – particularly regarding the areas of concern highlighted by the inquest into Ruth Perry’s death.

“Ofsted must ensure it continues to listen and reform through 2024.”

Aside from reforming the single-word judgement and improving support for school leaders, the Education Committee also made recommendations on “inadequate” judgements based on safeguarding, workload pressures placed on school staff, inspectors’ expertise, Ofsted’s complaints procedures and academisation of schools.

Current policy makes it “likely” that an overall “inadequate” judgement will follow if problems are found in a school’s safeguarding practices, even in cases where issues can be fixed within the two-month window before an inspection report is published.

The report concluded Ofsted should review this policy and ensure schools only receive ‘inadequate’ judgements where they are fundamentally failing to keep children safe.

The committee heard evidence from school staff that the workload required to prepare for inspections can feel “crushing” and “relentless”.

It recommended Ofsted undertake a programme of research to understand the causes of inspection-related workload pressure and see what reforms could be made to reduce this.

The report went on to recommend that Ofsted ensure a lead inspector has expertise in the type of school they are inspecting after Lord Knight told the committee the inspection process could resemble “a sort of sausage machine”.

The committee heard strong criticism of Ofsted’s complaints procedures, including suggestions that the inspectorate was “marking its own homework”.

It was told attempts to appeal against judgements were limited by Ofsted’s policy of not sharing the evidence base it collects during an inspection.

The cross-party group also heard criticism of the Independent Complaints Adjudication Service for Ofsted for only being able to look at how the inspectorate has handled a complaint, instead of managing the complaint itself.

The report recommended Ofsted conduct an in-depth review of the complaints process and explore setting up an independent body to investigate judgements, as well as allow schools access to evidence.

Sir Martyn Oliver
Ofsted’s new chief inspector Sir Martyn Oliver (Ofsted/PA)

The committee also called for the DfE to assess its policy of council-run schools being required to become academies after two “requires improvement” judgements.

It also recommended inspections should be more in-depth and take longer in order to give an accurate picture of a school’s performance.

The National Association of Head Teachers welcomed the Education Committee’s calls for major changes to Ofsted.

General secretary Paul Whiteman said: “While the new chief inspector has demonstrated his willingness to listen and openness to change, it’s vital this is now followed by tangible action and far-reaching reform if Ofsted is to regain the trust of schools.”

But the National Education Union claimed the report “does not grasp the true scale of the problem”.

Daniel Kebede, the union’s general secretary, said: “Schools are complex, and single-word judgements are not a sustainable means of assessing them.

“Replacing them with a more considered statement is important, but, as the work of the Beyond Ofsted commission has shown, dialogue between schools and ‘improvement partners’ is much more likely to yield genuine change.

“We need Ofsted to be replaced altogether by a system of inspection which is supportive, effective and fair. The inspectorate in its current form is none of these things.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “We have worked closely with Ofsted to make significant changes to ensure inspections help to keep children safe, whilst also prioritising the wellbeing of school leaders, including by recently expanding our wellbeing support for teachers.

“Ofsted’s overall judgement succinctly summarises inspection findings which gives parents the confidence in choosing the right school for their child and provides a clear basis for taking action to improve underperforming schools.”

They added that the department will give “careful consideration” to the recommendations.

An Ofsted spokeswoman said: “We welcome the select committee’s report and its findings. We look forward to responding in full to the recommendations.

“We have started making changes to the way we work, but we know more must be done to address the pressures faced by school leaders and staff. It is important that all changes we make are done in the best interest of children and their parents and carers, that is why we will launch a Big Listen in the coming weeks. We intend to hear from staff working in education and social care, as well as the parents, carers, children, young people and learners we serve.”

Responding to the recommendation to review single-word judgments, shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said: “Labour has long argued for the reform and strengthening of Ofsted so that its inspections give better information for parents and work with teachers to drive improvement in our schools.

“Rebuilding the fractured relationship between schools, families and government will be a key priority for an incoming Labour government as part of our mission to break down barriers to opportunity.”