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Ofsted promises to start recording inspection pauses

Ofsted will start recording when inspections are paused after admitting it could not back-up claims made under oath that inspectors had halted visits due to headteacher distress.

A coroner last month ruled an Ofsted inspection in November 2022 contributed to the death by suicide of headteacher Ruth Perry in January last year.

The watchdog gave evidence at the inquest that it had previously paused inspections due to headteacher distress.

Chris Russell, Ofsted’s then-national director for education, said while there was no written guidance on modifying inspections where heads were under “high levels of stress”, this was a “core value” of inspector training.

Amanda Spielman

But Ofsted has since admitted “we do not hold a central record of the number of inspections that have been paused, or the reasons why”.

“We are therefore unable to supply accurate data on the number of school inspections paused due to headteacher distress in each of the last three years,” former chief inspector Amanda Spielman added in a letter last month, seen by Schools Week.

However, she claimed: “We are aware from anecdotal evidence from our regional teams that inspections have been paused for various reasons, including headteacher distress.”

Spielman was responding to a parliamentary question from Gareth Thomas, Labour MP for Harrow West.

‘Symptomatic’ of Ofsted approach, says MP

He told Schools Week: “I think it is symptomatic of the way Ofsted has run inspections recently that they did not bother to record when headteachers and other staff were distressed by the way inspections were being run.”

Geoff Barton
Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the “high-stakes nature of inspection can have a devasting impact on the wellbeing of school and college leaders and teachers”.

“Not only has Ofsted failed to act upon this major issue, but it appears that it has barely been taken note of,” he added. “Major reform is required to produce an inspection system that is fairer and less punitive.”

Ofsted chief inspector Sir Martyn Oliver has halted inspections while new mental health training is rolled out, but they are due to resume on January 22. He has also launched an inquiry into how Ofsted handled Perry’s death.

Thomas added he hoped Oliver would “correct this as a matter of urgency. How else will we be able to tell if there really is a more effective, less brutal and more thoughtful inspection regime in place?” 

A spokesperson for the inspectorate told Schools Week this week: “We can confirm that we intend to record details of inspection pauses.”

Ofsted plans pause policy

Schools Week understands the inspectorate is also working on plans to devise and publish a policy on when inspections are paused.

This is likely to be included in the watchdog’s response to the coroner’s “regulation 28” report aimed at preventing future deaths.

Ruth Perry
Ruth Perry

Ofsted said it will respond to the coroner next Friday. It is understood the response will include details of new actions and those already taken for each of the seven areas of concerns raised in the report.

On pauses, the coroner’s report said there is “an almost complete absence of Ofsted training or published policy” in signs of distress during an inspection, practical steps to deal with this and pausing an inspection for this reason.

During Perry’s inquest at Berkshire Coroners’ Court in November, senior coroner Heidi Connor said it was “suggested by Ofsted witnesses that it is an option to pause an ongoing inspection because of reasons of teacher distress”.

However, she concluded it was “something of a mythical creature”, adding she heard “no direct evidence” and neither the school nor council were aware of the possibility.

Ofsted pointed Schools Week to Oliver’s previous comments when he halted inspections so the watchdog can fully respond to the coroner’s concerns.

Rise in inspector conduct complaints

Ofsted provided data on complaints relating to inspector conduct.

In the 2020–2021 financial year, 39 complaints from 2,585 inspections related to concerns over the conduct of inspections (1.5 per cent). The number of inspections this year was lower than normal amid Covid-19.

In the 2022–2023 financial year, Ofsted received 171 complaints raising conduct concerns out of a total of 7,615 inspections (2.24 per cent).

Gareth Thomas, Labour MP for Harrow West, said he was “very concerned by reports of aggressive and overzealous inspectors”.

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