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lilywallen
29th February 2024

Underpaid and overworked: How Ofsted does nothing to help teachers

The suicide of Ruth Perry, a primary school headteacher of 13 years, begs the overdue question of why are public services measured by business-centric standards of governance? Teaching is highly personal and increasingly complex, and Ofsted should treat it as such
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Underpaid and overworked: How Ofsted does nothing to help teachers

Content warning: Suicide

I fear I know too much about the day-to-day running of a primary school. Not because I’m currently undertaking a primary education degree, or even intend to go into the field (every child in the country can breathe a sigh of relief), but because I’m the daughter of an ex-headteacher.

In fact, this could be my most formative personality trait: feigned sick days resulting in a lie down on my Mum’s staff room sofa, having to hear her describe children as “my kids” when she definitely wasn’t talking about me or my siblings, and maybe even the odd Saturday putting together display boards that attempted to make compound sentences fun. Do other people with parents in teaching feel as deeply affected as me? Perhaps forever put off?

Yet, despite my jokes (sorry Mum, I promise they are just that), the only emotion I harbour towards my Mum’s vocation is deep respect, admiration, and, actually, a little bit of bewilderment. Nothing crystallised these feelings for me more than the suicide of Ruth Perry in January of 2023. She had presided over the headship of a Reading primary school for 13 years, and in early December 2023, a coroner’s report established that Ofsted had played an instrumental part in Perry’s decline after her school received an “inadequate” inspection result.

The inquest described the Ofsted inspection as “rude and intimidating,” drawing upon the testimonies of colleagues, friends, and family that Perry’s mental health took a serious downward turn during and after the inspection. Since, Perry’s sister, Julia Waters, condemned the “brutal inhumanity of the system of Ofsted inspections” by describing them as “callous, perverse, and inhumane.”

Ofsted’s response to the inquest – a pause to inspections for retraining purposes – is a myopic response to a tragic event that I believe speaks to a broader and more systemic issue.

Since the late 1990s and Blair’s fixation on a user choice ethos, the ascendency of business-style governance for public services has encouraged a nonsensical obsession with performance indicators, league tables, and quantitative target setting. The subsequent box-ticking psyche this has amassed among public service staff and their bodies of review is epitomised by Ofsted’s one-word judgements, feared by every school.

Public services, and schools in particular, are not businesses and should not be treated as such. They are an integral part of communities and a vehicle for social reproduction. Marketisation wholly omits the pastoral and deeply personal elements of teaching and learning, overlooking the community hubs that schools provide. Ironically, I think it’s the emotional commitment associated with teaching, where the nonprofessional or conventionally feminine aspects of the job are undervalued, that is at the root of why teachers tend to be overworked and underpaid.

As external pressures to perform and hit targets are hiked up, trust and autonomy in teachers, as I’m sure in other public services, have depleted. This process ignores the benevolence and passion associated with a vocation like teaching and speaks to the lack of trainee teachers entering the workforce; a Department of Education report published in late April 2023 showed recruitment of trainee teachers is falling short of required targets by more than half.

Having recently left her post as the head of a tiny village primary school in the North of England, my Mum’s resounding opinion contests Ofsted’s claim, as laid out in their inspection handbook, that they “do not require schools to do additional work or ask pupils to do work specifically for the inspection.” Instead my Mum claims that “Ofsted expectations have become the most predominant focus for all education establishments, particularly when in the ‘Ofsted window.’” Here, she refers to the one in every four years that an Ofsted inspector can turn up with only a day’s notice.

Seemingly unbeknown to the inspection agency, the hyper-focus teachers feel they must place on impressing inspectors means all stakeholders, teachers, support staff, and even the children are trained in how to answer Ofsted probes in line with the institution’s latest thinking. Although the responsiveness of Ofsted is commendable, their ever-changing guidelines, which they call “periods of adjustment” for the schools that must take them on, leave teachers in an almost perpetual state of catchup, having to retrain all stakeholders each time new standards are set.

More to the point, the “period of adjustment” is a gross understatement; stakeholders include governors, leaders, teachers, administrators, caretakers, and all other auxiliary staff in the school or its wider academy. Such a scale of readjustment, I’m sure it’s not hard to comprehend, comes at a great cost both in time and money. My Mum calls these incessant cycles of adjustment “exhausting” and “soul-destroying,” stating it’s often the case that a school will make sufficient changes just in time for Ofsted’s expectations to be reviewed and rewritten, and so the process goes.

As I see it, at the heart of my Mum’s testimony is the encroachment of the far-reaching hand of the Ofsted inspector. Certainly beyond the dreaded two-day inspection and even the once every four years ‘inspection window’, I think it is fair to say that Ofsted’s arbitrary one-word judgement perpetually determines the inner workings of schools and, quite frankly, the livelihood of their staff.

An overhaul of public service governance is needed, and never more desperately than in the case of schools. How should we do this? Ask the teachers, not the politicians.


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