After more than two decades spent in inner-city high schools, school principal Helen Roberts * quit the job she loves earlier this month. It was not the intense pressure of the pandemic that tipped it over – although it was difficult – but an inspection by Ofsted.
“Our inspector was intimidating, raised his voice and made accusations. There hasn’t been a single excuse every time I’ve proven his accusation to be unfounded. He quickly moved on to another charge, then to another, ”she says. The inspection also pissed off some students. “They felt they were being questioned and prompted to give negative comments.”
Roberts says his deputy returned home after being “pounded” by the inspector – and has not yet returned. Another “exceptional” teacher, who was “loved and respected by her colleagues and students” resigned last week, saying she never wanted to undergo an Ofsted inspection again. Roberts feels the same.
Since the pandemic, attendance at his school has been low and there has been a 40% increase in referrals to social services. Roberts says criminal exploitation of children, mental health issues, missing children and addiction issues have all “exploded.” Staff absences have skyrocketed due to Covid and few substitute teachers are available. Some staff are on long leave and those who are still working say they are exhausted.
Roberts insists she welcomes scrutiny, but says Ofsted inspectors have shown no desire to understand what her school is still going through.
“If only this time could have been used to support me, to be another pair of eyes and ears, to come up with ideas for dealing with what we are going through,” she says. “I love my job and I never thought my career would end like this. Recruiting teachers in city centers is difficult, which adds to my guilt. But I can’t relive this anymore.
As many schools are handling more student and staff Covid cases than ever before, the government has granted Ofsted an additional £ 24million to speed up inspections. All FE schools and colleges in England are due to be inspected over the next four years, and Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, said she expects the number of “outstanding schools” Or halved, from one in five to one in ten.
Chefs share stories of “brutal” inspections on social networks. Many admit that they can’t stand the fear of Ofsted’s arrival while their school is in crisis mode. Some, like Roberts, have resigned. Experts say many more will follow.
Primary school counselor Ruth Swailes said: “I have been told that inspectors use phrases like ‘Covid is no longer an excuse’. In one case where a member of the school community had died from Covid, the principal was told, ‘I don’t want to hear the word Covid’.
One elementary school she works with was demoted to “in need of improvement” because inspectors felt the curriculum had not changed sufficiently in the two years since the last inspection. Swailes says Ofsted apparently “completely ignored the fact that there had been a pandemic around that time.”
Another senior official she works with had 10 employees on leave with Covid when she got the call to tell her inspectors were coming. They came anyway and announced a detailed “in-depth” assessment of a subject whose head teacher was on sick leave with Covid. The teacher interviewed the inspector in bed “because they were so terrified of dropping out of school.”
Swailes says one of the brightest heads she’s ever worked with told her she wouldn’t be in post next year because “she just can’t get another inspection.” Swailes believes Ofsted is plunging the industry into deep crisis. “A lot of people are barely holding on in what has been the most difficult time of being a manager.”
John Hicks *, the principal of a primary school in the north of England currently classified as “exceptional”, resigned last week and says it is because of what Ofsted is doing. “Since I was 15, all I want to do is teach. But now I’m leaving because I really feel like the kids aren’t the priority and the staff are being pushed to breaking point – and I don’t want to be one of them.
Throughout the pandemic, Hicks told his staff to focus on the well-being of the students and getting the kids back to school, reassuring them that small gaps in the program wouldn’t matter. Now he knows of “outstanding” school principals who have been inspected and downgraded two levels to “requires improvement” and he thinks that can be used against the school. “The inspectors come with a program,” he said.
Since the start of the pandemic, there hasn’t been a day that every member of his staff has walked in, and he says it “isn’t even worth trying” to find replacements. Four staff members receive advice; two have been told by doctors that they shouldn’t be working but are coming anyway. “I have a great staff and they do so much more than I could expect of them,” says Hicks. “There is a huge problem here and it feels like no one is listening. I feel like no one cares.
Rachel Swan *, principal of an inner-city elementary school that was rated ‘for improvement’ in 2019, says she uses sleeping pills because she can’t wait to be inspected again. Advisors have told him Ofsted will want to see improvements in attendance, but many of his students have left with Covid.
During the last inspection, she recalls: “The inspector made a list of our employees that she did not like. One was because she didn’t think her Dr Martens shoes were appropriate. She said our local authority representative was a waste of time. She was very rude to people she had met for a few minutes.
Beverley Cotton Primary School *, which is located in the south of England and prides itself on being inclusive, was rated ‘good’ in a 2019 inspection, but the process was so painful it is now taking early retirement rather than facing another. “No one will talk to me like that anymore,” she said. The inspectors were then “disrespectful”. She’s usually good at defending herself, but says it seemed impossible to challenge “someone who holds your career in their hands.”
“I have had senior executives who said they stood in their classroom during the inspection and thought, ‘If I walk through this door now, this will all stop,’ she said. “I love my job, but I can’t take the pressure from outside anymore. “
Last year, Andrew Morrish, a former principal and former Ofsted inspector, co-founded Headrest, a confidential helpline for principals, to help leaders battling the pandemic. Today, he says their many appeals from desperate leaders – and concerned partners – are “almost entirely” about the pressure of inspections.
Morrish says: “School leaders kept schools open and walked the streets with emergency food packages to make sure children were fed. This is the thanks they receive. It shows a total lack of humanity.
Paul Garvey, a former Ofsted inspector who has written books on how to survive inspections, says inspectors should have been given a substantially rewritten set of guidelines with the pandemic in mind. “The principals have done such a wonderful job throughout all of this and no one recognizes it,” he says. “I’m talking to chefs who have already resigned because of the pressure of these inspections, and I think there will be more.”
A spokesperson for Ofsted said: “We are well aware that this is not about ‘business as usual’ for schools. But the kids have had their upbringing seriously disrupted, so it’s only right that we watch what happens to get them back on track. “
Ofsted’s policies had recently been updated so that it could postpone an inspection in order to “react sensitively when schools face particularly acute challenges,” the spokesperson added.
She said inspectors were still discussing the impact of the pandemic with school leaders.
She added: “Just like before Covid, the vast majority of schools tell us that inspections are constructive and likely to help them improve. And our latest inspections show that many schools are improving.
* The names of school leaders have been changed to protect their identity and that of their schools.