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Ofsted Poses a Safeguarding Risk to Teachers and Students

teacher looking stressed at student

The latest polling of National Education Union (@NEUnion) members finds that teachers’ experiences with Ofsted (@Ofstednews) remain negative. Just 3% believe that the recent two-week pause of inspection for mental health training is adequate to safeguard school staff in the future. 

Members describe to us a climate of fear, in which inspectors variously make pronouncements on areas in which they have no expertise, display racist or sexist biases, and arrive at inconsistent judgments. Inspections have also provoked panic attacks and complications with pregnancies. 

Strikingly, the survey also reveals cases of students being reduced to tears, or otherwise being made to feel “uneasy […] tricked and tested.” Of inspectors casually disclosing personal information about pupils in front of their class. 

Even in schools where an inspection has led to an Outstanding judgement, there has been heavy criticism of the process. 

4,678 state schoolteacher members in England responded to the snapshot poll, conducted online on 13 January 2024. 

These results come ahead of the 7 February due date set by senior coroner Heidi Connor, for a full action plan from Ofsted and the Department for Education to address concerns around the current inspection system. This is a consequence of the inquest into the death of head teacher Ruth Perry, in which Ofsted’s inspection was decided to be a contributing factor. 

An inadequate pause 

Ofsted has recently commenced training for inspectors “to help them understand and recognise any mental health issues they may encounter on inspection.” This is mandatory and must be completed by March, and no inspector can return to inspecting until it has been completed. 

Inspections overall are set to resume on 22 January, following a two-week pause. We asked members to respond to the news reports of this training: 

Two weeks of mental health training for Ofsted inspectors is not felt by the profession to be enough to ensure teacher and school leader safeguarding. Just 3% of respondents believed it was enough, 39% felt it was a positive step but not enough, and 58% thought it would not make any meaningful difference. This final figure rises to 61% among respondents working in primary schools. 

Even amongst the small number of respondents who felt positively about the training, their accompanying comments were often negative. 

“No matter what training they have and how they come across, we will still be scared of them because it feels like our jobs are on the line.” 

What the Chief Inspector needs to know 

Sir Martyn Oliver took over as Chief Inspector of Ofsted at the start of January 2024. 

As an open question, we invited respondents to answer the following: “What is one thing you would like the incoming Chief Inspector to know about your last Ofsted experience?” 4,000 replied (86% of respondents) and the answers were overwhelmingly negative. 

Responses broadly fell into four categories: appropriate training; unfair outcomes; inappropriate behaviour; and mental/physical ill-health. 

Appropriate Training 

“The English ‘specialist’ on the inspection team made comments and requests that made it clear she was comparing our classroom practice and curriculum with the curriculum and practice from approx. 2000-2007.” 

Another described an inspector who had only taught at a secondary girls grammar, and “attempted to tell our reception teachers that she was shocked by what was happening in reception. Surely only inspectors with teaching experience in primary schools should inspect primary schools?” Although this was challenged and corrected by the lead inspector, “Our reception teachers were distraught and in tears at the end of the first day.” 

Unfair Outcomes 

One respondent said, “It felt that we got a ‘requires improvement’ to force us to join a MAT [multi-academy trust].” 

Another teacher wrote, “there is no consistency in inspections. Schools with identical issues have been given widely different grades. Without consistency good schools are unfairly labelled.” 

A London member working in leadership wrote,

“The lead inspector said that she would like to award us outstanding but that this would be downgraded on internal moderation. If inspectors are not able to make professional judgements, what is the point?” 

In schools where an ‘outstanding’ judgement was awarded, members were not impressed by the quality of inspection and were often rocked by the process. One said,

“My school was graded outstanding and it was still one of the most stressful times throughout my 20+ year teaching career. After the inspectors leave, you are left feeling destroyed mentally, emotionally and physically. It takes a long time to recover even when the outcome is positive.” 

One respondent added:

“We were judged outstanding, but I still feel like this is extremely arbitrary – as it seems to all come down to the day and not actually the running of the school.” This was echoed by another: “We received outstanding, but it all felt arbitrary and stressful to the point that I would consider quitting before having to go through it again.” 

A member of a leadership team in a London primary, wrote:

“It was horrible and left me feeling broken. They confirmed that the school is still outstanding, but the word is not worth the worry and stress. Please get rid of the one- or two-word judgment. It’s out of date and needs to be replaced.” 

Inappropriate Behaviour  

One of the most concerning common themes was inspectors behaving inappropriately towards students during inspections. Many reported students upset and shaking or crying after meeting with inspectors. Alarmingly, multiple teachers reported inspectors listing off SEND or pupil premium pupils in front of the class or leaving this information around where other pupils could find it. As one wrote, “[This was a] breach of safeguarding by an external visitor and then HMI was surprised students weren’t forthcoming in their conversations. Completely unacceptable behaviour that was disregarded during appeal process to Ofsted. 

Others wrote:  

“There is a child at my school who has a form of SEND [that he] has chosen to keep private from his peers. One of the inspectors read out the child’s support plan containing this information to the child in the presence of other year groups. He tried to do this to other children too – thankfully they stopped him. 

These additional comments reflect the discomfort of students during inspections: 

“They belittled some of the children in my class.” 

“Our inspector was rude and condescending to staff and made the children feel uneasy and as though they were being tricked and tested. That is not ok.” 

“They made a student cry. No humanity in them” 

Inappropriate behaviour extended also to staff, as various respondents explain: 

“The last Ofsted inspector that I had an interaction with, didn’t seem to understand the make-up of our college cohort and there were some implicit racist remarks. We called him out on it and he apologised but Ofsted should have compulsory anti-racism training for all inspectors.” 

“The lead inspector was incredibly rude. She cut people short, did not allow them to speak and even put her hand up in a gesture to suggest, ‘that’s enough.’” 

“Inspectors should offer common courtesy when speaking with staff…our last inspector actually said she didn’t want to know our names, just wanted us to provide the information she needed. There was no professional discussion just a barrage of questions.” 

“Women have an opinion too. The inspector spoke to the only man in the room in a meeting even though he was not a part of the department we were talking about out.” 

This next comment was one of several such observations from respondents, and striking in that it highlighted the behaviour of inspectors during a period of heightened public criticism of Ofsted.  

“My last experience was good, but it was in the months after a head teacher’s death, and they were treading carefully. Consistency is what should be aimed for by Ofsted, and that is what, in my opinion, is missing.” 

Ill Health 

The consequence of harsh approaches to inspection, and the general climate of fear generated by Ofsted, is a clear negative effect on physical and mental wellbeing. This includes panic attacks, crying in the workplace, and complications with pregnancies. It is a common reason cited for leaving the profession. 

“It completely destroyed my confidence and desire to be a teacher.” 

“It was unbelievably traumatic. One member of staff had panic attacks and couldn’t be observed on the second day. I won’t be in the profession by the time we are due the next one…never again am I going through that.” 

“My colleague was so stressed by Ofsted that she went into early labour the next day and the baby was born early with some complications. He now has mild learning difficulties.” 

“The whole experience broke down our team. The whole leadership team has lasting trauma. Our school will never be the same again. Valued and experienced colleagues want out of the profession.” 

Commenting on these findings, Daniel Kebede, General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: 

“There is a serious disconnect between Ofsted’s belief in what it does, and the reality on the ground. The case for change is overwhelming, and this has to start from the top. Too many lives have been affected for it to be ignored any longer. 

“Gillian Keegan must understand the urgency of root and branch reform of Ofsted – it is desperately needed to ensure the safeguarding of school staff. As the incoming Chief Inspector, Sir Martyn Oliver has the opportunity to carry out this reform, and Keegan should grant him the powers to do so. 

“Both Ofsted and the Department for Education are required to respond to the senior coroner’s report into the death of Ruth Perry by 7 February. Right now, they are aiming for the bare minimum.  

“We believe that fundamental reform is needed to address the entire system of inspection. Teachers and parents deserve a supportive inspectorate that brings expertise rather than single-word judgements and is carried out in a supportive and professional manner. The independent Beyond Ofsted report, commissioned by the NEU and led by an independent expert panel chaired by Sir Jim Knight, shows all too clearly that the current regime is not fit for purpose and Ofsted is out of touch with the profession.” 

4,678 English state schoolteachers responded to a survey on 13 January 2024 asking about their experiences with Ofsted inspectors in light of the recent two week pause for mental health training. We reweighted responses in line with national figures for gender, region, phase, age, and level of deprivation in schools as measured by proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM). 

The Beyond Ofsted report is available here.

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