'You don't sleep': Headteacher and friend of Ruth Perry describes 'relentless' Ofsted inspections

  • ITV News Meridian's Wesley Smith spoke to two headteachers who knew and worked with Ruth Perry

A headteacher has described the "relentless" and "intense" process of an Ofsted inspection following the death of her friend and colleague Ruth Perry.

Lisa Telling, executive headteacher of Katesgrove Primary School and Southcote Primary School in Reading said: "You don't sleep... you can't eat because you're so scared because this means everything.

"This is your career as a headteacher. If you get an inadequate rating, it's not definite that you'll lose your job but it's fairly certain because you've taken your school to the worst judgement."

Ruth Perry, headteacher at Caversham Primary School in Reading, took her own life in January while waiting for an Ofsted report which downgraded her school to the lowest possible rating, her family said.

On Thursday, March 23, a petition with 45,000 signatures was delivered to the government calling for an overhaul of the inspection system.

Lisa said she was "deeply disappointed" but not surprised to hear that Ofsted has rejected calls to stop school inspections following Ruth's death.

Lisa said: "I was deeply disappointed but if I'm really honest I wasn't surprised.

"I really hoped they would listen, I really hoped they would understand the depth of feeling in the headteacher, teaching and education community but it's clear that they haven't.

"We are determined to get this message out, we are determined to honour Ruth's memory and we are determined that no other educational professional will die or be damaged by the inspection process."

In a statement, Ofsted Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, said: "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."

Amanda Spielman Credit: PA

Lisa describes the Ofsted inspection procedure: "You can only get a call on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, that's between 10am and 11am and that's from the admin team to say you've got an inspection coming.

"About 20 to 40 minutes later your lead inspector calls and that phone call can be anything between 90 minutes and three hours.

"I had three separate hour-long conversations about my school, my judgements of the school, setting up a timetable for the next two days. It's really intense.

"It's almost a memory test, that first 90 minutes or three hours, about what you know about your school.

"You really have to think about everything that you've said as it is going to be tested because Ofsted's way of working in this current framework is, the leaders say this, we tested it out with the teachers, students and the parents and they triangulate the evidence.

"They then come in and for the next two days there's just a series of exercises and if I'm honest, it's a blur.

"I prepared my daughter by saying if things go wrong in our inspection... we would have to move house.

"If I didn't have a job, I can't pay the mortgage and heads say that to their families.

"I'm a single mum, my daughter had to go and live with her godparents for three days and I didn't see her.

"We care passionately about what we do for our children, we're passionate to get it right but it's incredibly stressful."

Photographs of Ruth Perry have been placed around schools during Ofsted inspections. Credit: ITV News Meridian

Some schools have removed logos and references to Ofsted ratings from their websites as a mark of solidarity.

Headteachers are also planning to stage peaceful protests, including wearing black clothing and armbands and displaying photographs of Ms Perry around the school, when Ofsted inspections take place.

Lisa added: "The most personal part, and I think that's the bit that really affected Ruth, is that once you get the judgement you can't share it with your staff... Ruth held her knowledge for 54 days.

"She knew how cataclysmic it was going to be when the news went out... she had to show prospective parents around her school who were coming because it was outstanding, knowing it was inadequate.

"We're told that if we share any information we could be reinspected or downgraded. That's not fair, that's not acceptable."

Sophie Greenway, headteacher at Thameside Primary School in Caversham, says Ruth was her "rock". Credit: ITV News Meridian

The inspection report at Ruth's school found it to be good in every category apart from leadership and management, where it was judged to be "inadequate".

Sophie Greenway, headteacher at Thameside Primary School in Caversham said: "One of the changes we'd really like Ofsted to bring about in their framework is that safeguarding is audited annually because yes that brings more scrutiny, but that is in the best interests of the children and school staff.

"Ruth was so much fun, so diligent and so hard-working and the children loved her... she was absolutely inspirational.

"I have lost somebody who was a rock to me, she was the person that convinced me that I could be a headteacher.

"She was the person who said I could be myself and I would be a good leader, she gave me that confidence in myself. Her loss is felt everyday."

Some schools have removed references to Ofsted on their websites following Ruth's death. Credit: ITV News Meridian

In a statement, Ofsted Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, said: "Ruth Perry’s death was a tragedy. Our thoughts remain with Ruth’s family, friends and the school community at Caversham Primary. I am deeply sorry for their loss.

"Ahead of the coroner’s inquest, it would not be right to say too much. But I will say that the news of Ruth’s death was met with great sadness at Ofsted. We know that inspections can be challenging and we always aim to carry them out with sensitivity as well as professionalism. Our school inspectors are all former or serving school leaders. They understand the vital work headteachers do, and the pressures they are under. For so many colleagues, this was profoundly upsetting news to hear.

"This is unquestionably a difficult time to be a headteacher. School leaders worked hard during the pandemic to keep schools open and give the best education they could, while keeping vulnerable children safe. Since then, some children and families have struggled to readjust to normal life, and schools have had to respond with care and determination. School absence is high, mental health problems have increased, and external support services are unable to meet increased demand.

"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.

"The broader debate about reforming inspections to remove grades is a legitimate one, but it shouldn’t lose sight of how grades are currently used. They give parents a simple and accessible summary of a school’s strengths and weaknesses. They are also now used to guide government decisions about when to intervene in struggling schools. 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."