As a school chaplain and chair of governors, Rev Charlotte Cheshire has seen the stress caused by Ofsted inspections first hand. There must be a way to maintain standards that better reflects the justice and mercy of Jesus, she says
Our children are precious gifts from God (Psalm 127:3) and they deserve nothing less than the best we can offer them. It is therefore right that we should hold our teachers and schools to the highest of standards. I am confident anyone involved in education would agree that commitment to excellence in schools is fundamental.
But this week has seen extensive criticism directed towards Ofsted for the pressure their inspections place on schools and teachers. In January, Ruth Perry, headteacher at Caversham primary school, took her own life when Ofsted downgraded her school from ‘Outstanding’ to ‘Inadequate’. Perry’s family have said the highly critical rating of her school drove her to the tragic decision to end her life.
In the face of this, headteachers and teaching unions have called on Oftsed to pause their inspections and to allow time for reflection on a better way forward; one that holds accountability together with mercy, and encourages both children and school staff to thrive rather than feel condemned.
Schools know one misplaced piece of paper can trigger a yearlong downgrade of their school
Flora Cooper, headteacher at John Rankin school in Newbury, even attempted to refuse entry to Ofsted inspectors - until the local authority intervened. In a stunningly tone-deaf move, inspectors arrived at Cooper’s school flanked by police officers, only to be met by a line of teachers and parents wearing black armbands in silent protest and tribute to Ms Perry.
Amanda Spielman, head of Ofsted, said that while debate around reforming inspections is valid, inspections must continue because: “they give parents a simple and accessible summary of a school’s strengths and weaknesses.” Stopping them would be against “children’s best interests,” she added.
For over a decade, I have served in both lay and ordained roles as a primary school governor, special needs chair of governors, university chaplain and secondary school chaplain. I am also a parent who has searched the Ofsted ratings of prospective schools.
I have witnessed first-hand the incredible pressure experienced by teaching staff when the threat (and it does feel like a threat!) of Ofsted looms. Understandably (and rightly) schools spend significant amounts of time ensuring records are up to date, education methods are easily demonstrable and teachers are ready for inspection.
But this comes on top of an already full working day that rarely starts later than 7:30am and doesn’t finish before 6pm on a good day…unless there are after school clubs to run, detentions to supervise, end of term concerts to prepare for, marking to complete and preparation for the following day of teaching.
It is not unusual for me to have conversations with headteachers from 6am to 10pm, seven days a week, as they respond to situations arising in their schools. The still popular perception that teachers “have it easy” because of the lengthy school holidays is as absurd as the idea that a vicar works only an hour a week on a Sunday (if you still believe this, come chat with me after class…)
It goes deeper than being inspection-ready though; when Ofsted looms, the tension in a school is palpable. Already elevated stress levels soar and teaching staff become visibly on edge. They know one wrong word, one misplaced piece of paper, one child demonstrating unpredictable behaviour can be the trigger that leads to a yearlong downgrade of their school. This then becomes a vicious circle: fewer parents enrol their child, fewer teachers want to work there, and an already punishing workload only becomes heavier as the school strives to regain a more positive rating.
A better way
Ms Spielman has expressed empathy for the pressure caused by Ofsted, saying inspectors are all former headteachers themselves who understand the demands felt by teaching staff. However, one headteacher told me an inspection result can truly depend on who you get on the day, which isn’t right. She agrees with accountability but maintains the system is so flawed that if her school was downgraded she would, at a minimum, be signed off work with stress and potentially be forced to take legal action.
Our children are precious gifts from God and deserve the best we can offer them
Another school told me that they once rang Ofsted to declare a mistake made, inviting inspectors to visit and see how it had been remedied. Inspectors visited, then promptly downgraded the school from ‘Good’ to ‘Inadequate’, focusing entirely on the mistake, rather than what had been done to fix it. As calls from worried parents flooded in, staff despaired; Ofsted says it invites open accountability, but then punishes schools when they do so. None of this describes a healthy system that has a child’s best interests at heart.
When Christ is asked by the teachers of the law to define the greatest commandment, he replies that we must first love God with all our hearts, souls and minds but then love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 26:34-40).
He was speaking, of course, to people who were so concerned about observing the letter of the law that they entirely missed the spirit of it. Jesus reminds them of this when, in Matthew 23:23, he points to their diligence in tithing but their neglect of justice, mercy and faithfulness saying: “It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”
So while a commitment to legal inspections could be compared to a devotion to upholding the law, we must also remember the crucial place of justice, mercy, and faithfully loving our neighbour as ourselves.
After all, if we spend too much time focusing on the specks of dust in other’s eyes, we may overlook the plank in our own (Matthew 7:4-6). May Ruth Perry rest in peace and rise in glory.
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