Coroner Heidi Connor ruled that Ruth Perry, headteacher of a popular primary school in Reading, died by “suicide, contributed to by an Ofsted inspection carried out in November 2022”, when she handed down her verdict last week.
The coroner’s comments addressed growing concerns over the conduct of Ofsted inspections and the impact these inspections have on staff. Schools have long complained about the pressure and stress caused by Ofsted inspections.
Connor’s verdict is likely to have serious implications for the way Ofsted conducts investigations in the future. The verdict, combined with increasing pressure from unions representing school leaders, resulted in Ofsted agreeing to defer any inspections scheduled until the new year and pledging to “develop training for all inspectors on recognising and responding to visible signs of anxiety”.
Ofsted’s outgoing chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, pledged to set up a complaints hotline for schools, and it is widely expected that the incoming chief inspector, Sir Martyn Oliver, will herald a changing of the guard that may see the much-criticised single word rating system reviewed.
While many of these changes – including the appointment of Oliver as Spielman’s successor – were already in motion, Connor’s verdict has given fresh impetus for an overhaul of the UK’s education regulator.
Ofsted’s inspection was “conducted in a manner which lacked fairness, respect and sensitivity” and was “at times rude and intimidating”, Connor said, noting an almost complete absence of training for inspectors with regard to teacher welfare and a lack of any mechanism for schools to raise concerns.
In her report, Connor also criticised the use of single word ratings, noting that Perry’s school was downgraded from an overall grade of ’outstanding’ to ‘inadequate’ despite being judged ’good’ in all but one category.
“The evidence is clear in this respect, and I find very easily that Ruth’s mental health deterioration and death was likely contributed to by the Ofsted inspection,” Connor concluded.
Prevention of future deaths
In response to the death of Ruth Perry, Connor plans to issue a ‘Prevention of future death’ or ‘Regulation 28’ report.
Connor stated there is a real “risk of future deaths if there is only lip service paid to learning from tragedies like this”, expressing hope that the conclusions of her Regulation 28 report would be used by parliament to review how school inspections would work going forward.
Connor’s view is clear: the conduct of Ofsted’s investigation contributed to Perry’s death and, unless significant changes are made to Ofsted’s practices, there is a real risk this tragedy could be repeated.