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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Polly Toynbee

The Ruth Perry tragedy must mark the end of Ofsted’s reign of fear

A black and white photo of Ruth Perry attached to some blue school railings.
Headteacher Ruth Perry killed herself in January after an Ofsted inspection of her school. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

After her suicide and the coroner’s judgment, Ruth Perry’s name will mark not just the downfall of Ofsted’s reign of fear, but an end to the pitiless exam and inspection-driven education era in England.

The coroner’s exceptional verdict of “suicide: contributed to by an Ofsted inspection” found the inspection of Caversham primary school in Reading, where Perry was headteacher, “lacked fairness, respect and sensitivity” and was at times “rude and intimidating”.

Here ends the culture of terror-inspections of public services. Everything wrong with Ofsted applies equally to the Care Quality Commission and its tormenting one- or two-word ratings of NHS trusts. The notion that lazy public servants need thumbscrews to drive them on has finally reached the end of the road.

This bullying of schools condemns children to pressure-cooker learning. Targets and terror make it harder than ever to recruit and retain staff into the underpaid teaching profession, which attracted just half the number of trainee secondary school teachers needed in England this year.

Targets and terror still leave a third of pupils failing those vital English and maths GCSEs, branding them as no-hopers. Worse still, this figure rises to more than 50% for children who have received free school meals at some point in the past six years, stamping pupils as “inadequate” just like the schools they are more likely to attend. The most deprived schools have had the deepest cuts, reports the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

We rightly exercise the utmost caution when it comes to ascribing reason or blame to suicide: it may have multiple or inexplicable causes. That is what makes the coroner’s verdict on Perry’s death so devastating. Warned that her school was to be downgraded from outstanding to the lowest one-word, she wrote a note: “I.N.A.D.E.Q.U.A.T.E. keeps flashing behind my eyes.” Ofsted’s judgment was itself grossly inadequate, damning everything about the school because of record-keeping faults.

Long before this tragedy, the shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, called for Ofsted to end these brutal one-word judgments. Labour would use a rounded report card instead, while radically reforming the curriculum.

The Perry case opened the floodgates to teachers daring to reveal the intolerable fear and stress of inspections and often unjust judgments. Appraisals may be a normal feature of employees’ working lives, but they are assessments conducted by managers close at hand assessing year-round work, not snap judgments made in a day by strangers who may be “rude and intimidating”, delivering a career-killing single word.

But the tide has turned. After an aggressive response, even Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, far too late now agrees that reform is needed. Her predecessor, the severe Michael Wilshaw, has relented: “I think this made everyone think, and it’s made me think. And it’s made me change my mind,” he said, backing Labour’s report card approach.

If her party wins power, Phillipson plans to undertake a complete review of the curriculum and its assessment, but this time drawn up collaboratively with teachers, parents and trusts. How unlike Michael Gove’s sudden imposition of his Ebacc with virtually no consultation. At a stroke, his all-academic edict caused schools to ditch anything outside his regime: in England, 71% fewer students take design and technology GCSE than in 2010, music has fallen back and arts teachers have been cut by 23%, while sport lost playing fields and many hours of PE each week.

He was indifferent to children who only engage with school through the subjects he cut: it’s no surprise that absenteeism is higher among the third destined to fail in his system. Why go to school to be branded a failure, when the subjects you might shine at are gone? Look at the widening education divide between children in the north of England and the rest of the country, at a time when even Iain Duncan Smith’s rightwing thinktank, the Centre for Social Justice, reports that “the gap between the haves and have-nots is in danger of becoming a chasm”.

Labour plans no Gove-type volcanic education eruption: the system would break, it says, after Covid-19, funding cuts, yawning vacancies and exhausted staff. Phillipson plans to broaden and enrich the curriculum, without adding to teachers’ stress. If you want to know her thinking, read yesterday’s report from Public First and the Laidlaw Foundation, drawn up to closely reflect her plans: “Building tomorrow’s healthy, confident and productive citizens.”

Extensive polling and focus groups with parents, teachers and experts test out her intentions, and find overwhelming opposition to Gove’s excessive exams. Parents and teachers call for education to be broadened out with life skills, emotional intelligence, outside activities and enrichment through the arts and sports. Even half of the ABC1 social group, keenest on exams, think it’s all too much, mock after mock, all testing and not teaching. Everyone wants schools to be held accountable, but with fewer high-stakes inspections, designed to help not terrorise.

A new report card is still a blank canvas: what’s assessed will ordain what schools teach. Labour’s enthusiastic endorsement of this report reflects its emphasis on skills and “enrichment through music, art, sport and drama”. Keir Starmer was mocked for advocating “oracy” but “confidence in communication, critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork” are Labour priorities, while keeping the academic baseline. This chimes with the more generous and expansive mood of the times: Jo Johnson’s Lords’ education committee will today also call for ending Ofsted brutality and Ebacc exam obsession, suggesting a similar curriculum of delights.

Labour’s cornucopia curriculum will be drawn up only once the party is in government. The Public First report warns it will cost, needing higher teacher pay to cover a longer school day, which is not as yet a Labour commitment. These broadened horizons would take two parliaments, the report says, to start turning out “healthy, confident and productive citizens”, but that’s the direction of travel. Who wouldn’t prefer to teach and learn in Labour’s schools, than in Gove’s nose-to-the-grindstone exam factories?

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