24th November 2021
Dear Secretary of State,
We wrote to you on 21st October and received a reply on 23rd November (your reference 2021-0046793). Unfortunately, it does not seem to grasp the substance or seriousness of the concerns we raised. We encourage you to personally read our original letter and we have reframed our concerns in the form of a series of questions which may assist you in replying.
In your correspondence you state that Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of School (HMCI) is committed to ensuring that all inspections are both robust and fair to schools. While her commitment is not in doubt, we would ask if you have checked how this is playing out in practice in your discussions with the professional associations in the sector (ASCL, NAHT, The Chartered College) and the views of organisations offering well-being support to school staff?
Your correspondence emphasises the importance of fairness. We would like to know how graded school inspections taking place amid the pandemic, when schools are still managing the impact of high rates of staff and pupil absence, can be fair and comparable with those in more ‘normal’ times?
Your correspondence references the pandemic as having provided an opportunity to build back better and fairer, doubling down on our mission to make sure every child has the opportunity to achieve their potential. ‘Building back better’ requires a school system with headteachers who are not finding the pressure of graded inspections both a distraction, and the final straw in terms of stress, after 20 months of managing the impact of a global pandemic within their school communities. We are very concerned at the numbers of headteachers currently sick away from work and the number of vacant posts. Do you have the up-to-date figures for this, and plans for building back better if the school leaders needed to do this are no longer in post, cannot be recruited, or are long term absentees due to ill health?
We copied our original letter to you to Ofsted and their reply on 08/11/21 contained the following: Despite the ongoing challenges, we believe that a return to routine EIF inspection is the best way for Ofsted to support the sector, and children and young people. We are confident that we can do this in a fair, manageable, and safe way for schools and colleges and that Inspectors will always take time to understand and take account of all the different challenges schools are dealing with and how they are being affected by the pandemic. We have to tell you that the phone calls we are receiving do not indicate that this is happening. Over the course of only three days last week, we received 12 calls from headteachers all of which indicated that this is not happening. A typical comment we have received is: in our experience, no account was taken of the pandemic, lockdowns or the adverse impact of Covid and isolation. The return of routine graded inspections cannot support children and young people if it results in a school leader retention and recruitment crisis or the long-term absences of burnt-out school leaders. This is not, however, only our opinion:
…I am not sure this is the right time to do this kind of inspection we are doing. I do think inspection has a place within our system but there is something wrong in that people are frightened of it, there is something incorrect in that. (Sir Kevan Collins former COVID recovery tsar – TES 17/11/21)
…there is a growing sense among many of us that the inspectorate is currently passing judgements in circumstances that are anything but fair…..If ever there was a time for empathy from Ofsted, recognising what life is like for all of those in our schools and colleges, then it is now. Without it, the damage to Ofsted’s reputation may just prove irreparable…. (Geoff Barton – “Why the increase in inspections is damaging for Ofsted – TES 19/11/21)
…I am worried about the strain being placed on heads in school. Abusive Anti vaccers, COVID absence, pressure from Ofsted, feeling ill and just struggling. We need these people more than ever and I fear if we don’t look out for them we may lose some brilliant leaders in 2022. (Sir David Carter former Schools Commissioner – The Independent 21/11/21)
We would like to know why you are completely discounting the opinions of respected school leaders across the system?
We very much welcome that your letter refers to the importance of supporting the mental health of school leaders. The DfE being prepared to develop programmes to address this issue is something to be applauded. Your correspondence refers to putting out to tender a contract for a longer-term support programme to be delivered to around 2,000 school leaders – in England there are 24,413 schools according to Department for Education data – this means this initiative can at best cover 8% of all school leaders. Do you genuinely feel this, of itself, is going to make any meaningful impact on the immediate and urgent concerns we are raising around the damaging reintroduction of graded Ofsted inspections?
As there is clearly a mismatch between the perception of the inspectorate and almost all the other voices in the sector, we would like to know how you plan to address this?
In closing, it is interesting that in paragraph 2 of your correspondence the following comment is made: I am sure you will appreciate the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unprecedented levels of correspondence for all government departments and I apologise it has not been possible for us to reply to you more quickly. We, of course, fully empathise with the reality that the pressures of COVID-19 can adversely impact on normal organisational efficiency. That is exactly why, with COVID-19 pressures still rampant within our schools, we are arguing that this is the very time to pause graded inspections. In our original letter to you we stated that We find it hard to envisage how any national policymaker can think reinstating school inspections at this time would be anything other than a stress inducing process that will damage the well-being of many school leaders and their staff teams and that what school leaders most need is national policymakers to take decisions that reduce, rather than exacerbate, stress levels. We were compelled to write then as we could see the situation was becoming serious; it is now grave. The correspondence we have received on 23/11/21 has not meaningfully addressed these key issues and we would ask that you now do so. We very much look forward to receiving your considered response to our six specific questions.
Dr Kenny Frederick, Pete Crockett, Andrew Morrish, Ros McMullen
The Headrest team was established a year ago to listen to and support headteachers who wished to speak to an experienced headteacher in total confidence and free of charge - we could see the strain colleagues were facing and, as experienced heads ourselves, wished to do something to help. We are all successful ex-heads, NLEs, and still work in the sector professionally training, coaching and consulting. In our experience, we represent the full range of primary, secondary and special school backgrounds.