Headteachers say inspectors are ignoring or dismissing the harsh realities of Covid in schools
After more than two decades at inner-city secondary schools, Helen Roberts*, a headteacher, resigned from the job she loves earlier this month. It was not the intense pressure of the pandemic that tipped her over the edge – though that has been tough – but an Ofsted inspection.
“Our inspector was intimidating, raising his voice and making accusations. There was not one apology each time I proved his accusation unfounded. He just swiftly switched to another accusation, then another,” she says. The inspection also unnerved some students. “They felt they were being interrogated and pressured to give negative feedback.”
Roberts says her deputy went home after being given “a pounding” by the inspector – and has yet to return. Another “outstanding” teacher, who was “loved and respected by colleagues and pupils”, resigned last week, saying she never wanted to experience an Ofsted inspection again. Roberts feels the same way.
Since the pandemic, attendance at her school has been poor and there has been a 40% increase in referrals to social care. Roberts says criminal child exploitation, mental health problems, children going missing and substance misuse problems have all “exploded”. Staff absences have rocketed because of Covid and few supply teachers are available. Some staff are on long-term leave and those who are still working say they are exhausted.
Roberts insists she welcomes scrutiny, but says the Ofsted inspectors showed no desire to understand what her school is still living through.
“If only that time could have been used supporting me, being another pair of eyes and ears, offering ideas to deal with what we’re experiencing,” she says. “I love my job and I never thought my career would end like this. Recruiting teachers in inner cities is tough, which adds to my guilt. But I just can’t go through this again.”
While many schools are dealing with more pupil and staff Covid cases than ever, the government has given Ofsted an additional £24m to accelerate inspections. All schools and FE colleges in England are to be inspected in the next four years, and Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, has said she expects the number of “outstanding” schools to be halved from one in five to one in 10.
Heads are sharing stories of “brutal” inspections on social media. Many admit they aren’t coping with the dread of Ofsted arriving when their school is in crisis mode. Some, like Roberts, have resigned. Experts say many more will follow.
Ruth Swailes, an adviser to primary schools, says: “I’ve been told inspectors are using phrases like ‘Covid is no longer an excuse’. In one instance where a member of the school community had died of Covid, the headteacher was told: ‘I don’t want to hear the word Covid’.”
A primary school she works with was downgraded to “requires improvement” because inspectors felt the curriculum had not moved on enough in the two years since the last inspection. Swailes says Ofsted apparently “completely ignored the fact that there had been a pandemic in that time”.
Another primary head she works with had 10 staff off with Covid when she got the call to say the inspectors were coming. They came anyway, and announced a “deep dive” detailed assessment of a subject whose lead teacher was off sick with Covid. The teacher did an interview with the inspector in bed “because they were so terrified of letting the school down”.
Swailes says one of the most brilliant heads she has ever worked with has told her that she will not be in the job next year because “she just can’t go through another inspection”. Swailes feels Ofsted is driving the sector into a deep crisis. “A lot of people are barely holding it together in what has been the most challenging of times to be a headteacher.”
Since I was 15 all I’ve wanted to do was teach. Now I’m leaving because I really feel the kids aren’t being put first
Head of a north of England primary school
John Hicks*, the head of a primary school in the north of England currently rated “outstanding”, resigned last week and says it is because of what Ofsted is doing. “Since I was 15 all I’ve wanted to do was teach. But now I’m leaving because I really feel the kids aren’t being put first and staff are being pushed to breaking point – and I don’t want to be part of it.”
Throughout the pandemic Hicks has been telling his staff to focus on pupil wellbeing and getting children back into school, reassuring them that small gaps in the curriculum would not matter. Now he knows heads of “outstanding” schools who have been inspected and dropped two levels to “requires improvement” and he thinks this may be used against the school. “Inspectors are coming in with an agenda,” he says.
Since the pandemic started, there has not been a day when every member of his staff has been in, and he says it is “not even worth trying” to find replacements. Four staff are having counselling; two have been told by doctors they should not be working but are coming in anyway. “I’ve got amazing staff and they are doing so much more than I could possibly expect of them,” Hicks says. “There is a huge issue here and it feels like no one is listening. It feels like no one cares.”
Rachel Swan*, the head of an inner-city primary school that was rated “requires improvement” in 2019, says she is using sleeping tablets because she is so anxious about being inspected again. Advisers have told her that Ofsted will want to see improvements in attendance, but many of her pupils are off with Covid.
During the last inspection, she recalls: “The inspector rattled off a list of our staff she didn’t like. One was because she didn’t think her Dr Martens shoes were appropriate. She said our local authority rep was a waste of time. She was very rude about people she had met for a matter of minutes.”
Beverley Cotton’s* primary school, which is in the south of England and prides itself on being inclusive, was rated “good” in an inspection in 2019, but the process was so bruising that she is now taking early retirement rather than face another. “I won’t be spoken to like that again,” she says. Inspectors then were “disrespectful”. She is usually good at standing up for herself, but says it felt impossible to challenge “someone who holds your career in their hands”.
“I had senior staff who said they stood in their classroom during the inspection and thought ‘If I walk out of that door now all this will just stop,’” she says. “I love my job but I just can’t stand the pressure from outside any more.”
Last year Andrew Morrish, a former headteacher and an ex-Ofsted inspector, co-founded Headrest, a confidential telephone support service for headteachers, to help leaders who were struggling in the pandemic. Today he says their many calls from desperate heads – and worried partners – are “almost entirely” about the pressure of inspections.
Morrish says: “Heads have kept schools open and walked the streets with emergency food parcels to make sure kids are fed. This is the thanks they get. It shows a complete lack of humanity.”
Paul Garvey, a former Ofsted inspector who has written books on how to survive inspections, says inspectors should have been given a substantially rewritten set of guidelines taking account of the pandemic. “Headteachers have done such a marvellous job throughout all of this and no one is recognising it,” he says. “I’m talking to heads who have already handed in their resignations because of the pressure of these inspections, and I think there will be more.”
A spokesperson for Ofsted said: “We are well aware that this isn’t ‘business as usual’ for schools. But children have had their education seriously disrupted, so it’s right that we look at what is happening to get them back on track.”
Ofsted’s policies had recently been updated so that it may postpone an inspection so as to “respond sensitively when schools are facing particularly acute challenges”, the spokesperson added.
She said inspectors always discussed the impact of the pandemic with school leaders.
She added: “Just as before Covid, the vast majority of schools tell us that inspections are constructive and likely to help them improve. And our latest inspections show that many schools are improving.”
* Names of headteachers have been changed to protect their identity and that of their schools.