Dear Amanda Spielman,
In response to your Woman’s Hour interview on 23.11.23.

Over the last two weeks some key things have happened in education in England. On the 15th November, Education Support published their annual Teacher Wellbeing Index, followed two days later by the Beyond Ofsted Inquiry into the Future of School Inspection. I have read both of these reports in full and these research-based documents show a damning picture of the wellbeing of school staff in all sectors and particularly around the current inspection process. Also, the education sector raised from their own pockets a staggering £70,000+ for Ruth Perry’s family’s legal fees and the inquest is currently underway – my thoughts are with Ruth’s family and friends.

So imagine, the collective shock of school staff to hear your opinions of OFSTED and school leaders on Women’s Hour. I myself was unaware that it was recorded in a parallel universe to the one the rest of us are working in. I am no longer in headship and if you have read my previous blog you will know why. This is not the time to discuss my story again, but it is time to speak up for the profession, and to have the right to an opinion that is not dismissed as anxiety that has been ‘spun around the system’.

Some of the key findings from the Teacher Wellbeing Index 2023 are as follows:

  • 78% of school staff are stressed – this rises to 82% for teachers and 89% of senior leaders.
  • 39% of school staff have experienced a mental health issue in the past academic year – 41% teachers and 37% senior leaders.
  • 35% say these were symptoms of burnout.
  • Staff wellbeing score is 43.65 using the Warwick Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS) – lower than the national population scores and the lowest recorded since 2019.
  • 73% of staff think inspections are unfit for purpose.
  • 73% of staff say inspections do not improve learner achievement.
  • 71% of staff say inspections negatively impact their mental health and wellbeing.
  • 64% of staff feel inspections do not deliver reliable judgements.

I am not sure these numbers could be any clearer and in my new role as a Leadership Coach, I am seeing the same picture over and over again.

Yet Ms. Spielman you talked on Woman’s Hour about how in your seven-year tenure there is an improving picture in the quality of OFSTED, and that you would not change any of your decisions. The Teacher Wellbeing Index reports a picture in schools that has gotten worse over five years, yet you maintain things are improving. You also said that OFSTED has very wide support in the system and that was shown in a very serious study that was undertaken. Does that mean that the two reports that I am referring to are not serious? I am confused.

Emma Barnett (what a woman!) asked you at the beginning of your interview how you would judge yourself as the outgoing Chief Inspector and unsurprisingly you would not give yourself a one-word judgement and made the claim that OFSTED do not judge individuals. As a former head teacher and someone who has experienced seven inspections over 25 years, I beg to differ. Let me quote from one of my own experiences:

The Head Teacher has successfully developed a school community based on caring and inclusive values.

In a one-form entry school it is not rocket science to work out exactly which individuals the inspector is referring to, whether that be in a negative or positive manner. If the maths leader is talked about or the SENCO for example, all you need to do is cross reference these on the school website. Individual members of staff are judged and feel those judgments deeply.

However, some of the more disturbing comments you made were around anxiety that is created within the system and not by OFSTED (your words). You described the tragedy of Ruth Perry as being used by people (you do not directly say school leaders) as a pivot to express the views that the school sector just doesn’t want to be accountable and that as a body we are concerned about having disappointing outcomes to inspections. I feel the need to explain some of these issues to you and the teams that work under you.

Twice in my career as a head teacher I have been diagnosed with stress and anxiety and both times they were linked to situations I was dealing with within my job. There is an enormous difference between feeling worried and concerned about things that you might have heard at meetings or through your networks and suffering with a medical diagnosis of anxiety. A medical diagnosis of anxiety is an uncontrollable fear/worry that impacts on your daily life and will often need both medical and therapeutic intervention. I think what I am trying to say is that the stress and burnout that school staff feel is deeply rooted in working in a profession where the odds of success are so heavily stacked against you that on a daily basis you feel that you are wading through treacle. OFSTED is the core of this system that no longer serves its learners or the staff that are there to improve their outcomes.

Why do you suppose as a profession we are so anxious, stressed and depressed? Why do we let it consume our everyday life? I wonder Ms. Spielman do we just need to be more resilient? I mean you said yourself you do not want schools to do anything different for the inspection and you expect to see a ‘normal’ couple of days. Well, I think I know the answer. We feel the pressure so deeply because we care! We feel it because we are accountable. We know we are and more importantly we know we need to be. We are accountable to the children in our schools, to their families and the wider community. We are accountable to the staff we employ to ensure they reach high standards but keep well mentally and physically. We are accountable to our governing body, to our local authorities, to our MATs, to the Health and Safety Executive and to the Local Safeguarding Board and police and health services. Every day we are accountable for the life chances of the young people and staff in our care. We knew this when we took on the role and we understand this. There is no head teacher in England who as you say feels ‘uncomfortable around being held accountable’ it comes with the territory.

What makes us ‘uncomfortable’ is the way in which your framework holds us to account and the inconsistency with which it is done. What kind of a judgement can be made in less than 48 hours in the building? How do your inspectors give a reasonable and honest account of what goes on in all curriculum areas, behaviour, safeguarding, leadership including governance, parental relationships with school, support for SEND children, the extra-curricular activities, the staff training programme, the support for early career teachers… do I need to go on?

Lesson observations are often as short as ten minutes, but inspectors write seemingly factual statements on the back of these. One of my school’s inspection reports commented on high attaining children not being challenged sufficiently in maths – this was because a child (who was not high attaining) said that his work was too easy. If the inspector had looked in the child’s book, he would have seen a child who constantly needed adult help and retrieval practice to secure new concepts! Of course, we are concerned about less than positive outcomes with our inspections because single-word judgments are not enough and on the back of those judgements you lose families and staff to other schools, and outcomes fall even further.

The Beyond Ofsted Inquiry Report recommends some really workable solutions that would still hold schools very much to account – but will anyone at the DFE actually take it seriously? The report is based on research and evidence and not the government rhetoric that sits behind OFSTED. Let me explain just a few of them – I would recommend that you read it though Ms. Spielman as I believe it tells the real story behind our broken education system. But what do I know?

At the very least we need to abolish the single-word judgments and create more regular opportunities for safeguarding checks (although lots of LA’s undertake annual audits already).

However, what the report really advocates is an accountability system that aids school improvement, not one that makes inaccurate judgements and walks away without looking back. Schools need long-term relationships with a trusted expert who can judge and support, someone who knows the context of the school and the staff profile. There needs to be real-time transparency to reporting to stakeholders and regular surveys to check progress. The professionals who work in collaboration with the schools need values that align with the school. Some critics would say that schools already have this with their SIPS or Challenge Partners (MATS) and yes they do – but these are ultimately still working to the OFSTED framework and all that entails. With the framework gone, accountability becomes more manageable, fewer staff will burnout and leave and we can begin to honestly recruit new staff to an amazing and fulfilling profession.

The Teacher Wellbeing Index recommends an investment in soft leadership skills, those of coaching, compassion, empathy and authenticity – I wonder if you would agree?

We have two options really – we can tinker around the edges or we can buy into total transformational change that will be sustainable and improve outcomes for children, young people and the adults involved in their care. It may even save lives.

Finally, you say in your interview that being an inspector is a tough job, but someone has to do it! I disagree – being a head teacher is a tough job, being an underpaid, under-resourced teacher or teaching assistant is a tough job. And being a child in a failing school system where the stakes are too high and the classrooms are crumbling around them is a tough job.

Maybe you should return from that parallel universe and really engage with the skilled, caring and absolutely dedicated people who work at the chalkface?