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Ofsted must drop its culture of domination and work with schools – not against them

(Alamy)

4 min read

By 20 October 2022, I – a resilient and confident school leader – was broken.

Throughout my 17 years as a headteacher, I had always known positive and affirming inspections, yet when Ofsted’s inspectors walked through the doors of Queen Emma Primary School in Cambridge last autumn, it seemed that the new framework sought to catch teachers out and break them.  

Ofsted’s inspection handbook is vague in its terminology and so is the Department for Education’s guidance, Keeping Children Safe in Education, which requires schools to record concerns “however minor” (or, in our case, untrue). 

Our experience should serve as Ofsted’s biggest risk assessment

Every aspect of this inspection felt wrong. Information presented was ignored if it did not fit their preconceived narrative. Staff were in tears after meetings with inspectors, and I was told to “stop talking” when presenting inconvenient contrary evidence. On the first day of the inspection, they looked at our safeguarding processes and found them “effective”, but the next day they changed their minds and decided the school was “inadequate”.

The boundaries of professional conduct that Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman has spoken so highly of, were breached – including sensitive documentation about individual children being taken off the premises, for which Ofsted had to apologise. At the end of two gruelling days, burning with the shame of that “inadequate” judgment, I was at my lowest ebb. I had many, many concerns about the conduct of the inspection, but would I have the strength to raise them? With the support of my chair of governors, I did. I drew breath and made the boldest move I could ever have made. I challenged them.

The process for challenging Ofsted is as opaque as its inspection methodology. Ofsted’s complaints system is entirely internal: there is no independent ombudsman schools can turn to. Even though the complaints process was not completed, Ofsted ignored our requests for a delay and went ahead with publishing the report. Our parents were soon up in arms – against Ofsted. Amanda Spielman says Ofsted reports are important for parents: our parents viewed the report with contempt.

This is not a case of sour grapes about a bad Ofsted. We knew the report was based on multiple breaches of procedure, yet at every step Ofsted defended every action of its inspectors: it seemed that they considered themselves infallible. We had no option but to apply to the courts for judicial review. 

Days before that application was due for consideration, and seven and a half months after the inspection, Ofsted wrote to admit that the report was indeed “unreliable” and that they were withdrawing it immediately. They finally recognised the truth of the criticisms we made at the very start of the process. As a result we will receive a fresh inspection, which had in fact been requested at the start of this process and was refused by Ofsted.

This business raises serious questions for Ofsted. The inspection has been a huge waste of public money. Even more serious, it very nearly cost me my life. In my darkest moments, immediately after the inspection, I contemplated suicide. Ofsted now talks of providing mental health support to headteachers, but why on earth should we even need it?

What would have helped? The simplest remedy would have been to share the inspectors’ evidence base so it could be agreed by all parties instead of it being kept secret by Ofsted, even against Freedom of Information requests. Problems, clarifications and misunderstandings could all be remedied on the spot. Above all, Ofsted needs to drop its culture of domination and work with schools not against them. 

Our experience should serve as Ofsted’s biggest risk assessment. 

 

Sarah Jarman, headteacher at Queen Emma Primary School, and executive headteacher of the Queens’ Federation

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