When my daughter had finished her final day at nursery in Reading last summer we strolled home through the park, my wife and I blinking through quiet tears. We were sad because we knew it was the end of our children’s most innocent infancy but as we sat and gazed over the deep valley of leaves and redbrick houses we could see a reason to be equally happy too. Down below was Caversham primary school, which was where our daughter would very soon begin the next stage of her young life, and we knew she would be entering an outstanding school.
We knew it was outstanding because Ofsted had told us so. More importantly, we knew it was outstanding because our son was already attending the school, and he loves it there. He is thriving academically but more importantly he is happy and is growing into a warm, kind little person who respects others and seeks to understand the world around him.
These are the values he is exposed to on a daily basis at Caversham primary. They were the values clearly expressed and driven by the headteacher, Ruth Perry. When deciding which school we would most like him to attend, Mrs Perry’s love for her school was a powerful influence. She had attended Caversham primary as a child and then dedicated her professional career to the school, and the passion in her voice when she spoke about it told us that she was totally committed to ensuring its new generation of pupils had the same wonderful start in life that she felt she had been gifted there. It seemed impossible to comprehend a teacher more dedicated to their school, more invested in its success, more caring for its children, and we were delighted to secure a place for our son and then our daughter.
Five months after that bittersweet day in the park, Ruth Perry was dead. We were in utter disbelief when we heard the news. We had seen her just days before, quietly observing as she always did, while the children cheerfully drifted out of the playground despite the cold and dark of January. Just a few weeks earlier, she had applauded the end of the reception class’s nativity play, heartily congratulating the tiny shepherds and reindeers with the same mixture of pride and amusement that we parents felt. But now she was gone. Dead, at the age of just 53. How on earth was this possible?
When no cause of death was announced we started to fear the worst. Rumours inevitably began. There was a date on the calendar that was surely just a coincidence but yet niggled somehow. It was only an Ofsted inspection. It was the school’s first in 13 years and we hadn’t yet had the result, which did seem strange. Perhaps it had gone badly. But surely that would not be enough to drive someone to suicide?
And yet, it was. This week we learned the horrific, unimaginable truth. Ofsted had downgraded the school from “outstanding” to “inadequate”, purely on what its inspectors judged to be failures in relation to safeguarding. The report made abundantly clear that this was the responsibility, and failure, of the senior leadership. That, of course, meant Mrs Perry. This destruction of her professional reputation in one word had broken her – put her under “intolerable pressure”, according to her sister, Julia.
As parents, when told by the government’s schools inspectorate that there are “serious” safeguarding concerns, we must take such a judgment seriously. Yet, as parents, our eyes have also now been opened to the realities of Ofsted inspections, and the dreadful toll they take on hardworking, dedicated, caring teachers all over the country.
The outpouring of grief, and of despair and fury from teachers on social media, has been staggering. These aren’t just teachers, of course – they are people, and so many of them have suffered mental torment because of the stresses of Ofsted. And if you think that’s weak, well, you’ve clearly never had to spend much time looking after young children. These are strong, resilient people who take on the burden of one of society’s toughest and most valuable services.
Most of these teachers welcome constructive inspection and scrutiny of their work, but not adversarial inspectors and inconsistent reports. How, for example, can Caversham – and Mrs Perry’s leadership – be graded “inadequate” when the majority of the report hails the high educational standards of the school? How can its children’s behaviour be widely praised yet one playground incident be used to denigrate the school’s entire reputation? How can inspectors cite a child doing the wholly innocent “floss” dance, popularised by computer games and footballers, as evidence of the sexualisation of children in the school, as allegedly was the case at Caversham? And how can a school be accurately judged based on the events of just one day in its complex life?
Members of Parents against Ofsted hold photographs of Ruth Perry outside the Department for Education, while members of the NEU hand in a petition calling for Ofsted to be replaced with a school accountability system. (Left to right) Amanda Bentham, a former teacher from London, George Binette and James Denny, who lives near Caversham primary school, seen on 23 March 2023. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
I can’t lie: Ofsted’s inspection verdict of outstanding was an attraction for us to send our children to Caversham. As parents we must also be honest and ask ourselves whether if Mrs Perry were still here today we would be angry about the report suggesting there have been serious lapses in the school’s safeguarding procedures. The answer is almost certainly yes. No doubt some would be very vocal about it too. The emerging consensus seems to be, however, that most of these lapses are easily remedied and many have already been dealt with. Some seem to come down to just a few missing pieces of paper.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former chief inspector of schools in England and head of Ofsted, said parents “want a summary judgment” on whether “they are sending their children to a good school”.
He is wrong. What most parents want to know is this: that teachers truly care about their children and their school, that they are talented and dedicated to giving a high standard of education, that they are committed to helping children become responsible, happy members of society with bright, unlimited futures.
Caversham primary had all of these things in Ruth Perry.
Most parents also want to know that when there are problems, such as those flagged in this Ofsted report, they are highlighted and then resolved by constructive collaboration between the relevant authorities and talented, dedicated teachers.
On the day it was announced that Mrs Perry had died, the children wandered slowly out into the playground, shock and incomprehension written on all of their faces. All instantly relayed the dreadful news to their parents and carers, but in wildly different ways. Some were solemn and quiet, some were loud and frantic. My daughter laughed out of confusion.
Ruth Perry was once just like her, a little girl in that same school playground, learning how to navigate the world. We are all heartbroken.
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