Ruth Perry: Ofsted needs more empathy, says Sir Martyn Oliver as he starts new role

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Ruth Perry was the head at Caversham Primary School in Reading for 13 years – she took her own life in January last year
By Branwen Jeffreys and Sallie George
BBC News

The body overseeing school inspections must listen to the criticism it has received following the suicide of head teacher Ruth Perry, its new chief says.

In his first interview in the job, Sir Martyn Oliver said Ofsted had to ensure high standards in schools – but said it could also be “far more empathetic”.

Last month, a coroner ruled that a critical report by the organisation contributed to Mrs Perry’s suicide.

Since the inquest head teachers’ unions have demanded a pause to inspections.

Ofsted inspects England’s childcare, apprenticeships, children’s services and schools.

A coroner last month concluded that one of its inspections of Caversham Primary School, in Reading, had contributed to the suicide of Mrs Perry, 53.

She had been waiting for the publication of a report downgrading her school from outstanding to the bottom category, inadequate.

The inspection had “lacked fairness, respect and sensitivity” and was at times “rude and intimidating”, senior coroner Heidi Connor concluded.

Speaking to BBC News, Sir Martyn – who took over the job as chief inspector on 1 January – said Ofsted had “a difficult job to do”.

He said: “Ultimately we have to be about high standards and say to parents ‘these are the standards that are being provided’. But I think we can do that in a way that is far more empathetic.”

He said Mrs Perry’s death was a “terrible tragedy and a real shock”.

Until the inquest concluded, Ofsted had dismissed concerns about the inspection and refused to accept that Mrs Perry’s death had raised wider issues about the mental health impact of the system on heads.

Unions representing head teachers were outraged, describing it as “tone deaf”.

Asked about the response, Sir Martyn told the BBC: “I don’t think it went far enough, and I’m quite clear on that. There’s clearly been a lot of criticism and we must accept that criticism in order to have a fresh start and move on.”

Ruth Perry’s sister, after the inquest, said her death had left an “unfillable hole” in the lives of her family

One of his first priorities will be to oversee an internal review so Ofsted can meet a legal duty to respond to the coroner.

Heidi Connor used her legal powers to issue a Prevent Future Deaths (PFD) report to Ofsted, Reading Borough Council and the Department for Education.

Such a report aims to stop similar situations arising again.

Anyone getting one has 56 days to say what they plan to do to mitigate the chances of deaths happening.

Sir Martyn said he will bring in additional expertise around mental health, to keep developing training for inspectors, and will see through changes already under way to make it easier for schools to raise concerns.

He also wants to recruit more heads to get involved in Ofsted inspections to rebuild trust.

“I am determined that we shall learn those lessons and we shall review our practices, we shall work with others and we shall respond fully to the corner’s inquest.”

The two unions representing head teachers have called for a pause in school inspections until Ofsted produces a plan and a timetable to address all of the concerns raised by the coroner.

The Guardian is reporting that Ofsted inspections will be halted until more training is given to assessors in how to protect the wellbeing of school staff.

The paper reports that “only emergency safe-guarding visits” will go ahead when schools reopen this week.

However, the BBC understands that some of the training will be at the start of the new term with routine inspections resuming several weeks later.

Both unions and Mrs Perry’s family also want to see an end to the use of one or two-word judgements on schools, a decision only ministers could make.

Professor Julia Waters, Mrs Perry’s sister, has also been campaigning for change. She said she was reassured that Sir Martyn recognised significant change was needed.

She called for “urgent root and branch reform” to prevent further deaths. She said “a few tweaks to the current system and some extra training go nowhere near far enough”.

She will be meeting Sir Martyn in his first week in the job.

The government has made it clear it has no plans to change the one or two-word judgements.

However, Labour has already said it would move to a report card system, listing strengths and areas for improvement.

Sir Martyn Oliver took over as Chief Ofsted Inspector on 1 January

There are also wider challenges about the inspection of schools, many of which are still dealing with the impact of the pandemic.

Sir Martyn said some schools were struggling to deal with a high rate of pupils missing lessons and more difficult behaviour by pupils.

As chief inspector, he said he would look at the evidence and speak up about where services outside schools were causing difficulties for parents.

He comes with a tough reputation, having been a head and more recently in charge of a large group of academy schools in some of England’s most disadvantaged communities.

The academies have had a higher than average rate of suspensions for pupils, a policy he has defended as helping turn round schools and make them popular with parents.

It’s a toughness he may need, as he takes over an organisation facing, what Sir Martyn himself describes as “an existential moment”.

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