The National Education Union (NEU) has set up an unprecedented inquiry into the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), led by Jim Knight, a former schools’ minister.
Although Ofsted and the NEU have carried out reviews into aspects of its work, this is the first time since it began inspecting schools in 1992 that a full-scale inquiry into Ofsted has been held. It follows the tragic death of headteacher Ruth Perry who ended her life when her school, Caversham Primary School in Berkshire, was downgraded to ‘inadequate’ from ‘outstanding’.
The reasons for the inquiry
There are many reasons for the inquiry, including:
- Inconsistency between inspection teams
- Inspectors with primary experience judging secondary schools and vice versa
- The insensitivity of some inspectors towards staff and children
- Work overload before, during and after an inspection
- The harmful consequences of a judgement of ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’ on the whole school community.
The impact of Ofsted on teachers’ mental health
In March I carried out a ten question survey of the impact of Ofsted on teachers’ mental health. The survey was open to all teachers and a link to it was posted on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. There were 363 responses. The results were alarming:
- The overwhelming majority (95%) of teachers think that pressure from Ofsted inspections has increased during the time that they have been teaching.
- One question asked teachers to rate the impact of Ofsted on their mental health on a scale of 1-10, where 10 is the greatest impact on their mental health that they had ever experienced. 47% scored it at 10.
- The overwhelming majority of teachers (93%) believe that Ofsted inspections should be halted until the coroner’s inquest into Ruth Perry’s death has taken place (Ofsted continues to inspect schools).
In an open question: ‘Any other comments?’, of the 220 comments, there were no solely positive comments about Ofsted. 12 comments were a combination of positive and negative remarks. 208 were entirely negative. Although the research was a snapshot and small-scale, the number of negative responses is a remarkable illustration of the feelings of teachers about the Ofsted inspection process.
Three typical responses:
“The current system, with its narrow and arbitrary labels, needlessly places schools in categories that do not reflect the whole picture. Why are grades necessary? Schools need to be accountable but this would be better done by local experts with knowledge of the school and focusing on what is excellent, with points for improvements as a result of a conversation, not an interrogation.”
“Teachers are leaving the profession in droves due to the immense and unsustainable workload. This workload is driven by the fear of Ofsted grades and it has decimated the profession. Staff wellbeing is at an all-time low and this is impacting the people we are there to serve – our young people. I left a career which I loved and had given my all to due to workload, data overload, and the gradual stripping away of my passion for my work. Heartbreaking.”
“Ofsted should recognise how hard the job is and how every day we do our very best. We need to have an education system where first and foremost children’s happiness is a priority. We are sucking the life out of our children due to pressure and data and it is so wrong. I hate what we are doing to children and what the threat of Ofsted is doing to me.”
The comments were similar to those received by primary teacher Lee Parkinson to a survey asking teachers to recount their experiences of Ofsted.
What is the current use of Ofsted?
So, what do these results mean for schools? The effect of Ofsted on staff mental health has wide-ranging consequences for pupils. Professor Jonathan Glazzard of Edge Hill University, presents findings in Chapter 4 of my book, Cultures of Staff Wellbeing and Mental Health in Schools from his research into the effect of teacher wellbeing and mental health on primary pupils’ progress. One teacher said:
“I think the children pick up on how the teacher is feeling and then in turn they are not being given that quality teaching experience, so in the short term they are not making the progress that you would expect” (p 27).
This is also true of parent-child relationships.
Another teacher commented:
“I tried my best to put the children first when I was in school. But my mind was elsewhere. I struggled for a couple of weeks. Then the headteacher pulled me aside and said: ‘You’re not alright, are you?’ I said no and it was the first time that I actually cried. Then I took some time off.” (p 28)
And a pupil’s perspective:
“When she’s [their teacher] like frustrated, in the morning I can tell because she’s normally really happy. She’s frustrated because she is trying to hide it. But because I’ve been with her for nearly two years. I can sense it. I’m just like, I know it’s not going to be a good day.” (p 30)
These views illustrate Professor Glazzard’s main conclusion: that the mental health of teachers impacts the mood of pupils. It confirms a study carried out in Finland in 2016 during which teachers’ and pupils’ cortisol levels were measured in the morning and once in the afternoon by taking salivary swabs. Cortisol is made by the adrenal glands at the top of the kidneys. It is the body’s main stress hormone. It controls mood, motivation and fear.
The researchers concluded that “…teachers’ occupational stress and burnout is linked to students’ physiological stress”. The researchers used the term ‘contagion’ to describe how the teacher’s stress was ‘caught’ by the children.
In a nutshell, if teacher is stressed, it is likely that this will affect pupils’ progress, mood and engagement. Ofsted is a key factor in teachers’ mental ill-health, including stress and anxiety.
Retention and recruitment
Teacher mental ill-health does not only affect the classroom. Alongside work overload and pay, it is also a major factor in increasing the number of school staff leaving the profession and making it difficult for schools to recruit. The Teacher recruitment and retention in England data dashboard published by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) paints an alarming picture of the teaching workforce:
- The Department for Education (DfE) has missed its teacher trainee recruitment target for 2023-24 – the second year in a row. It is estimated that the target for secondary trainees will be missed by 42%.
- 9 out of 17 secondary subjects: physics, computing, design and technology, modern foreign languages, religious education, music, drama and art and design are expected to be 20% or more below the DfE targets set in 2022-23. Subjects like English, maths, chemistry and geography could also under-recruit this year.
- The number of teacher vacancies was 93% higher in the academic year up to February 2023 than at the same point in the year before the pandemic.
Teachers leaving the profession are doing so because of mental ill-health, work overload and pay. For the same reason, applicants for both teacher training and job vacancies are down. Unless this crisis – the worst I have known in 45 years as an educator – is reversed, more children will be taught by temporary staff, some of whom may not be specialists in teaching the age range or in subjects where teachers are needed.
A Knight in shining armour?
Enter Jim Knight, to chair an inquiry into Ofsted. The name of the inquiry ‘Beyond Ofsted’ has given encouragement to staff in schools. It suggests root-and-branch reform to school inspection which may include dismantling Ofsted and establishing a more supportive and collaborative body. Jim Knight was a schools’ minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA) and is known for his integrity and plain speaking.
As Jim Knight states in his video on the inquiry website:
“Everyone agrees that schools need to be accountable, and to ensure that they are, there needs to be a robust system in place. However, what we currently have with Ofsted is an approach that stirs up stress amongst school leaders that trickles down to staff and pupils. Too often, it punishes rather than supports. The Beyond Ofsted inquiry will rigorously investigate the system and identify what is needed to make it fairer and more effective. A system that does not solely criticise but seeks to provide assistance, especially to those schools that need it most.”
The unprecedented inquiry into Ofsted is a step in a justifiable reaction to government strategies to take control of education from the centre, begun by Michael Gove when he was Secretary of State for Education 2010–14.
I have great hopes that, in considering evidence which will be collected via a survey of the profession and feedback from the inquiry members, Jim Knight will help to build an inspection framework which is collaborative, supportive and includes recommendations of actions schools might consider where it identifies areas of further development.
The lives of teachers, children, parents and governors depend on it.