Why heads are quitting over ‘brutal’ Ofsted inspections

Headteachers say inspectors are ignoring or dismissing the harsh realities of COVID in schools

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on The Guardian

After more than two decades at inner-city secondary schools, Helen Roberts*, a headteacher, resigned from the job she loves earlier this month. It was not the intense pressure of the pandemic that tipped her over the edge – though that has been tough – but an Ofsted inspection.

“Our inspector was intimidating, raising his voice and making accusations. There was not one apology each time I proved his accusation unfounded. He just swiftly switched to another accusation, then another,” she says. The inspection also unnerved some students. “They felt they were being interrogated and pressured to give negative feedback.”

Roberts says her deputy went home after being given “a pounding” by the inspector – and has yet to return. Another “outstanding” teacher, who was “loved and respected by colleagues and pupils”, resigned last week, saying she never wanted to experience an Ofsted inspection again. Roberts feels the same way.

Since the pandemic attendance at her school has been poor, and there has been a 40% increase in referrals to social care. Roberts says criminal child exploitation, mental health problems, children going missing and substance misuse problems have all “exploded”. Staff absences have rocketed because of COVID and few supply teachers are available. Some staff are on long-term leave and those who are still working say they are exhausted.

Roberts insists she welcomes scrutiny, but says the Ofsted inspectors showed no desire to understand what her school is still living through. “If only that time could have been used supporting me, being another pair of eyes and ears, offering ideas to deal with what we’re experiencing,” she says. “I love my job, and I never thought my career would end like this. Recruiting teachers in inner cities is tough, which adds to my guilt; but I just can’t go through this again.”

While many schools are dealing with more pupil and staff COVID cases than ever, the government has given Ofsted an additional £24m to accelerate inspections. All schools and FE colleges in England are to be inspected in the next four years, and Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, has said she expects the number of “outstanding” schools to be halved from one-in-five to one-in-10.

‘Brutal’ inspections

Heads are sharing stories of ‘brutal’ inspections on social media. Many admit they aren’t coping with the dread of Ofsted arriving when their school is in crisis mode. Some, like Roberts, have resigned; experts say many more will follow. “I’ve been told inspectors are using phrases like ‘COVID is no longer an excuse’,” says Ruth Swailes, an adviser to primary schools. “In one instance, where a member of the school community had died of COVID, the headteacher was told ‘I don’t want to hear the word COVID’.”

A primary school she works with was downgraded to ‘requires improvement’ because inspectors felt the curriculum had not moved on enough in the two years since the last inspection. Swailes says Ofsted, apparently, “completely ignored the fact that there had been a pandemic in that time”.

Another primary head she works with had 10 staff off with COVID when she got the call to say the inspectors were coming. They came anyway, and announced a ‘deep dive’ detailed assessment of a subject whose lead teacher was off sick with COVID. The teacher did an interview with the inspector in bed “because they were so terrified of letting the school down”.

Swailes says one of the most brilliant heads she has ever worked with has told her that she will not be in the job next year because “she just can’t go through another inspection”. Swailes feels Ofsted is driving the sector into a deep crisis. “A lot of people are barely holding it together in what has been the most challenging of times to be a headteacher.”

John Hicks*, the head of a primary school in the north of England currently rated “outstanding”, resigned last week and says it is because of what Ofsted is doing. “Since I was 15 all I’ve wanted to do was teach. Now I’m leaving because I really feel the kids aren’t being put first, and staff are being pushed to breaking point – and I don’t want to be part of it.”

Throughout the pandemic Hicks has been telling his staff to focus on pupil wellbeing and getting children back into school, reassuring them that small gaps in the curriculum would not matter. Now he knows heads of ‘outstanding’ schools who have been inspected and dropped two levels to ‘requires improvement’ and he thinks this may be used against the school. “Inspectors are coming in with an agenda,” he says.

Since the pandemic started there has not been a day when every member of his staff has been in, and he says it is “not even worth trying” to find replacements. Four staff are having counselling; two have been told by doctors they should not be working, but are coming in anyway. “I’ve got amazing staff and they are doing so much more than I could possibly expect of them,” Hicks says.

“There is a huge issue here and it feels like no one is listening. It feels like no one cares.”

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