Archive for March, 2023


How not to have a debate about Ofsted

March 23, 2023

Last month, just before she was due to stand trial for assaulting a pupil, a Scottish school teacher took her own life. Press reports drew on the accounts of her family and colleagues. They informed us that Anne Scouler was a pillar of the community who was blamed for accidental contact when trying to confiscate a phone from a pupil.

This happened at a time when there are reports of an increasingly dangerous, environment in Scottish secondary schools. I have frequently discussed the breakdown of discipline in schools north of the border, where exclusions are rare and “trauma-informed” heads and dogmatic politicians claim bad behaviour is caused by “Adverse Childhood Experiences” rather than the ordinary flaws of children manifesting themselves in the absence of adult authority. I could have used this tragedy to expand on this point; I could have claimed that Mrs Scouler died as a result of a problem about which I have already expressed strong opinions.

I didn’t, and am not doing so here, because I have read the Samaritans’ media guidelines. As convenient as it is to believe that a suicide has one cause and that the cause is something one is already against, that is not actually likely to be the case. As the Samaritans say:

Speculation about the ‘trigger’ or cause of a suicide can oversimplify the issue and should be avoided. Suicide is extremely complex and most of the time there is no single event or factor that leads someone to take their own life.

This is the reality. Even if we can locate a stressful event in the lead-up to a suicide, we can never know whether it really was the cause because we can never know whether other factors were more important or if their death would have happened anyway. Even the closest friends and family of a suicide victim cannot be sure what was going on in the victim’s head. The Samaritans even warn against sharing the content of suicide notes, or other messages from a person who has died. A sympathetic story about a suicide may be compelling, but it can be harmful if it encourages people to identify with the deceased in a way that makes their fatal actions seem reasonable or even admirable.

Unfortunately, not everybody is aware of the Samaritans’ guidelines. And, if a news story upsets us, it can well impair our judgement. This can be the case even if, in other circumstances, we would know that it’s best not to speculate about, or sensationalise suicide. So perhaps it was inevitable that when headteacher Ruth Perry took her own life following an Ofsted inspection, many people treated it as a way to hammer home some point that they already believed about Ofsted inspections. I would encourage anybody who has tried to use this tragedy to promote a point of view they already believed in to have second thoughts about this now. It is easy to use a tragedy to manipulate emotions, and easier still to react to an upsetting news story without due reflection, but any reform or abolition of Ofsted requires thought and consideration, not a narrative about a suicide.

Removing all accountability from schools is not going to happen. If Ofsted was abolished tomorrow, it would soon be replaced with something else, which may be something worse. Moreover, the Ofsted report for Ms Perry’s school criticised its safeguarding work, claiming:

The arrangements for safeguarding are not effective. Leaders have a weak understanding of safeguarding requirements and procedures. They have not exercised sufficient leadership or oversight of this important work. As a result, records of safeguarding concerns and the tracking of subsequent actions are poor.

Scrutinising safeguarding is the one duty of Ofsted that is generally thought of as indispensable. Even during the suspension of routine inspections during COVID, an exception was made for safeguarding concerns. If the argument is that nobody should be checking up on whether a school’s safeguarding procedures are adequate, or that there should be no professional consequences if safeguarding is inadequate, then it is unlikely to get a sympathetic hearing from anybody in power, or from parents.

Of course, if the argument is simply that the Ofsted regime has negative effects and Ofsted should be reformed or abolished for that reason, then the specifics of this case are not really relevant to the argument. It is exploitative and manipulative to use this death as a reason to end all elements of inspection, even those that had no bearing on this case.

There is perhaps one concern that has come out of this inspection that might be worth further reflection. This is (at least) the third time in the last twelve months that public attention has been brought to inspectors finding problems with safeguarding in otherwise apparently effective schools. In December, MP Philip Hollobane complained that a school in his constituency had been targeted by a “rogue hit squad” when it was (like Ms Perry’s school) downgraded from outstanding. While there were several criticisms made of the school, one was that:

The school does not currently record and share all safeguarding information effectively. This means that the actions taken to safeguard pupils are not always clear.

A few months earlier, a school in Kent received attacks in the press about being too strict after an Ofsted report accepted at face value complaints from parents about pupils finding the enforcement of rules “oppressive”. Those sections of the report looked like the bad, old days of Ofsted when progressive inspectors condemned effective discipline because it made pupils too compliant. When criticism was made of this obviously ideologically motivated report, those defending it fell back once more on the issue of safeguarding. The report claimed:

The arrangements for safeguarding are not effective. Systems for recording safeguarding concerns about pupils, including leaders’ actions in response, are extremely poor. Often, actions are not recorded in detail. Records of safeguarding concerns are not kept confidential or stored securely. They are also maintained in different places. This means that leaders do not have a precise oversight of which pupils are vulnerable and at risk of harm.

That makes a total of three schools where the quality of education is good, but safeguarding procedure has been used as part of the reason to give a Requires Improvement or Inadequate grade and the grading has been shocking enough to end up discussed in the media. I would suggest that this is where any discussion and scrutiny should be focused. Are schools that are otherwise well-led struggling to satisfy Ofsted’s safeguarding expectations, particularly regarding record keeping? This doesn’t mean that Ofsted has got this wrong. Nevertheless, even if Ofsted are reaching sound judgements, it would suggest schools need more support in this area. Schools should know, long before inspectors arrive, whether their safeguarding records and procedures are adequate or not. It would be useful to schools if this issue became the focus of attention.

We do not need to further promote attempts to exploit a tragedy for the sake of an agenda of removing all accountability or settling scores over Ofsted’s past controversies. That said, I’m not going to take people to task for reacting unwisely to a tragedy. We almost all do that occasionally. But I am going to be cynical about anyone trying to use suicide to fuel an ongoing campaign to reform or abolish Ofsted. And I’ve already seen far too many people claiming that not wanting to exploit a suicide is “defending” Ofsted.

%d bloggers like this: