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Overwhelming stress is inherent to the whole Ofsted process

HeadsUp4HTs has been supporting school leaders’ wellbeing since 2019. Our network includes over 10,000 headteachers, school leaders and organisations including local authorities and multi-academy trusts .

Our mission is to celebrate, support and advocate for school leaders with a focus on their wellbeing. Our initiatives focus on enhancing mental health support by equipping leaders with strategies for maintaining their wellbeing, providing specific interventions for those facing mental health challenges, nurturing peer support networks and fostering intentional wellbeing and emotional wellbeing practices for headteachers and school leaders.

In delivering that mission we gain insights into the unique pressures they face and how these impact their ability to do their job and their quality of life.

Following the tragic death of Ruth Perry in 2023, we wanted to explore the impact of Ofsted on headteachers’ wellbeing. While most focused on the impact of the two-day inspection itself, we set out to better understand the accountability process more roundly, including the periods before and after inspection. Here’s what we learned.

Waiting for the inspection

The vast majority (94.9 per cent) of survey respondents (321 headteachers) overwhelmingly describe negative emotions in the period of time that they are waiting for the Ofsted call. 

For many schools and headteachers, this is a period of around 12 months, though some report waiting for anything up to two years.  All headteachers report anxiety related to waiting for ‘the call’ on a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – every week during this period of time.

The highest-frequency responses to describe emotions in this period are: anxious/anxiety, stressed, worried, fear and dread.

Undergoing the inspection

Again, the great majority (92.4 per cent) of survey respondents describe negative emotions during inspection.

Ofsted themselves report that most leaders report seeing the Inspection as a ‘done with’ process (as opposed to ‘done to’).  However, in our survey 76 per cent of respondents reported that the inspection felt ‘done to’, with a further 5.6 per cent reporting that they had experienced both ‘done with’ and ‘done to ‘ inspections at different times.

The highest-frequency responses mirror those experienced in the ‘waiting’ phase above. However, we also see new emotions emerge in the responses here: anger, frustration, trauma, unheard and bullied.

More worryingly, five of our respondents reported feeling suicidal during an inspection.

Recovering from the inspection

A similarly overwhelming majority (92 per cent) of survey respondents describe negative emotions following inspection.

The highest-frequency responses to describe this phase include: exhaustion, anger, exhaustion and deflation. We also see the appearance of feelings such as devastation, demotivation, disillusionment and failure.  Even the more positive-sounding ‘relief’ clearly indicates a negative process.

And again, five respondents reported suicidal feelings in this phase.

Actions for policymakers

Leading a school community requires energy and positivity as well as skill. These responses indicate that a significant proportion of our leaders are beset by extreme negative emotions for lengthy periods brought about by the Ofsted inspection process. This requires urgent consideration.

First and foremost, we must build a deeper understanding of inspection experiences to shape future iterations of more supportive, collegial and productive inspections by:

  • exploring and addressing high levels of reported pre-inspection anxiety
  • examining educator experience during inspection
  • establishing ways to reduce variability in inspection experience seemingly dependent on quality of the assigned inspector(s) and their approach to inspection
  • creating strategies to understand and address how inspection experience may be having a prolonged negative influence on leaders’ and educators’ wellbeing
  • examining and addressing how the inspection process may be influencing leaders’ intention to remain in the job and their ability to lead continuously improving, sustainable schools.

Furthermore, policymakers should reflect on the recommendations for change made by the leaders who participated in our survey. The areas they identify as having the most significant negative impact on the their wellbeing (and that of their staff) are the grading system, support for schools, flexibility in the framework to reflect school size, context, phase, etc., inspector selection and training and notification windows.

As Ofsted undertakes its ‘Big Listen’, we hope the voices of these leaders are heard.

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