Stopping inspections would not be in the best interests of children, the head of the schools watchdog has said after calls for them to be paused following the death of headteacher Ruth Perry.
Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman acknowledged the debate about reforming inspections to remove grades “is a legitimate one” but insisted school checks aim to raise standards and should continue.
Three unions representing teachers and heads have urged Ofsted to pause inspections this week and Reading Borough Council also called for a pause while a review is carried out into the system.
Ms Perry, who was headteacher at Caversham Primary School in Reading, killed herself in January while waiting for an Ofsted report which downgraded her school to the lowest possible rating, her family said.
In a statement, Ms Spielman described Ms Perry’s death as “a tragedy” and said she was “deeply sorry” for the loss suffered by the headteacher’s family, friends and the school community.
She said the news had been “met with great sadness at Ofsted” and acknowledged that school inspections “can be challenging” as she said inspectors always aim to carry them out with “sensitivity as well as professionalism”.
She said: “The sad news about Ruth has led to an understandable outpouring of grief and anger from many people in education. There have been suggestions about refusing to co-operate with inspections, and union calls to halt them entirely.
“I don’t believe that stopping or preventing inspections would be in children’s best interests. Our aim is to raise standards so that all children get a great education. It is an aim we share with every teacher in every school.
“Inspection plays an important part. Among other things, it looks at what children are being taught, assesses how well behaviour is being taught and managed, and checks that teachers know what to do if children are being abused or harmed.
“We help parents understand how their child’s school is doing and we help schools understand their strengths and areas for improvement. It’s important for that work to continue.”
Ms Spielman said it is an “unquestionably a difficult time to be a headteacher” with school staff having worked during the pandemic to keep schools open “while keeping vulnerable children safe”.
She said the “broader debate about reforming inspections to remove grades is a legitimate one” but added that it “shouldn’t lose sight of how grades are currently used”.
She said inspection grades allow parents to see a “simple and accessible summary of a school’s strengths and weaknesses” and are used to guide Government decisions about when to intervene in struggling schools.
She added: “Any changes to the current system would have to meet the needs both of parents and of government.
“The right and proper outcome of Ofsted’s work is a better education system for our children.
“To that end, we aim to do good as we go – and to make inspections as collaborative and constructive as we can. We will keep our focus on how inspections feel for school staff and on how we can further improve the way we work with schools.
“I am always pleased when we hear from schools that their inspection ‘felt done with, not done to’. That is the kind of feedback I want to hear in every case.
“As teachers, school leaders and inspectors, we all work together in the best interests of children – and I’m sure that principle will frame all discussions about the future of inspection.”
Rebecca Leek, executive director of Suffolk Primary Headteachers’ Association, disagreed with Ms Spielman’s claims that inspectors always aim to carry work out with sensitivity and professionalism.
She told the PA news agency: “The experiences of school leaders are to the contrary.”
Meanwhile, the National Association of Head Teachers union said the decision not to pause inspections had been “a terrible mistake” which “serves to reinforce the view that Ofsted is tin-eared and shows scant regard for the wellbeing of school leaders”.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary, said “warm words and sympathy” are welcome but are not enough and argued this should be a “watershed moment” for “a completely new approach to school inspection”.
He added: “School leaders want to see tangible actions being taken to reduce the intolerable pressure that the current inspection regime places on everyone in schools, and they want to see those actions now.
“We are not against inspection per se, we simply believe that a fairer, more humane approach is possible. We also believe parents would support a new approach.”
The National Education Union said replacing Ofsted with a new agency “would be good for children”.
Deputy general secretary Niamh Sweeney said: “What is not in children’s best interests is head teacher burnout and beloved class teachers leaving. What is not in children’s interests is ploughing on with a pretence that this is the only approach to inspecting schools.
“What would be in children’s interests is recognising that a motivated and thriving workforce is good for children. The failure to grasp the connection in these times when everyone knows the value of positive staff mental health speaks volumes.”
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said the union has asked Ofsted to pause inspections rather than halt them entirely, calling it “a very moderate request”.
General secretary Geoff Barton said: “The death of Ruth Perry is an extreme example of the damage done by the high-stakes nature of the inspection system, but the truth is that it often has a catastrophic effect on individuals.
“A short pause to inspections to consider this matter seems a very moderate request, and would help Ofsted show the profession that it is listening.”
In a letter to Ofsted on Wednesday, school and college leaders across Reading said they wanted the “terrible tragedy to mark a turning point” in the way school inspections are carried out by the watchdog.
The Reading Primary Heads Association and Reading Secondary and College Leaders are calling for an urgent review of inspections and for the four headline grades that Ofsted awards schools to be removed.
Schools have been removing logos and references to Ofsted ratings from their websites as a mark of solidarity with Ms Perry and heads said they plan to stage peaceful protests – including wearing black clothing and armbands and displaying photographs of Ms Perry around the school – when Ofsted inspections take place.