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How Ofsted reduced headteacher Ruth Perry’s life’s work to one devastating word: inadequate

 (iStock, PA, Shutterstock)
(iStock, PA, Shutterstock)

When Ruth Perry answered the phone to Ofsted on 14 November last year, she was a happily married mother-of-two excitedly preparing to move into her family’s forever home.

A highly respected educator, she was at the peak of her career leading an outstanding school which she had loved since attending as a child.

So while she was understandably anxious to learn that inspectors would be descending on Caversham Primary School in Reading the following day, she wasn’t overly stressed.

“She seemed happy, finally, to have the opportunity to promote the many strengths of her school to the inspectors,” her husband Jonathan Perry recalled.

But only 24 hours later the dedicated and hardworking headteacher was shaking, tearful and feared she would lose her job after a meeting with lead inspector Alan Derry, who identified some problems with the school’s record-keeping for safeguarding.

Worried colleagues said they had never seen Ms Perry so distressed, adding she was “flushed” and unable to speak coherently after the disastrous meeting was halted early on the first morning of the inspection.

She later told her husband that the horrendous encounter had left her “traumatised” and she felt Mr Derry was a “bully” who had accused her of being “in denial” when she attempted to defend her school.

Mr Perry added: “She said she felt powerless. I’d never seen Ruth so deflated and defeatist. She was destroyed and humiliated.”

The inquest heard that following the Ofsted inspection, Ms Perry contacted her local GP, as well as local mental health services (Family handout)
The inquest heard that following the Ofsted inspection, Ms Perry contacted her local GP, as well as local mental health services (Family handout)

Worried that asking for the intensive two-day inspection to be halted would reflect badly on the school, she endured at least eight more meetings with Mr Derry and his inspection team over the next 48 hours as she tried to showcase the school’s many strengths.

The assessors agreed Caversham was “good” in every respect apart from leadership and management because of the problems found in the school’s Single Central Record, a statutory document outlining checks conducted on staff, including teachers, support staff and volunteers.

The inspector said the record-keeping problems could be rectified within 30 days. However, thanks to Ofsted’s summary judgement policy, the error meant the school and Ms Perry’s life’s work would be summed up by one single word: inadequate.

Knowing the judgement would likely result in her school being automatically turned into an academy and possibly marked the end of her career as headteacher, Ms Perry, 53, broke down.

The inspector himself described her response in their final meeting as “a strong physical reaction” adding that she looked in pain as she sobbed and told him she would not be able to show her face again.

The following weekend, she confided to her colleagues that she was having “very dark thoughts”. Less than two months later, Ms Perry took her own life, dying in hospital on 8 January.

In the wake of her death, her sister, Professor Julia Waters, described the headteacher’s experience with Ofsted as the “worst day of her life” as she led calls for the school’s watchdog to be overhauled and for one-word summary judgements to be scrapped.

Ruth Perry and her sister Professor Julia Waters (Family handout)
Ruth Perry and her sister Professor Julia Waters (Family handout)

Responding to the national outcry, Ofsted’s chief Amanda Spielman this summer announced a revised complaints procedure and new policies to return to reassess a school downgraded on safeguarding within three months, but the changes fell short of ditching one-word judgements.

On Thursday, an inquest concluded that the Ofsted inspection had contributed to Ms Perry’s death, which was recorded as suicide.

In a Prevention of Future Deaths notice to Ofsted and the Department for Education, senior coroner Heidi Connor will highlight concerns over the impact of the grading system on headteachers’ welfare. It comes amid an ongoing parliamentary inquiry into the schools watchdog, launched in the wake of her death.

Ms Perry’s deputy headteachers, now acting co-heads at Caversham Primary, and her GP of 30 years had all told the inquest that the disastrous Ofsted inspection was directly linked to her death.

In her final weeks, her husband said she kept repeating that she had “let everyone down” and was filled with regret for buying their new home, amid fears she would lose her income as the family’s main breadwinner.

In a sign of the inflated influence that Ofsted’s judgements can wield, with housebuyers often flocking to catchment areas for outstanding schools, she also feared the inadequate grade would cause property prices to plummet.

“She worried that local house prices would fall and that the whole community would be angry at her,” Mr Perry said.

Despite her devastation, she did not feel she could speak to anyone about the inspection due to Ofsted’s policy about keeping their draft judgements confidential.

In June this year, Caversham Primary was upgraded to “good” following a reinspection. And more than a year on from the devastating 48 hours which turned Ms Perry’s world upside down, her family, friends and supporters are determined that her legacy will be to prevent other headteachers from going through the same ordeal.

Ms Perry’s family and friends are determined that other heads should not face the same ordeal as her (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Archive)
Ms Perry’s family and friends are determined that other heads should not face the same ordeal as her (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Archive)

School parent Edmund Barnett-Ward, whose four children all thrived at Caversham under Ms Perry’s leadership, is campaigning alongside Professor Waters in her battle to see Ofsted overhauled. He attended every day of her inquest and was joined by headteachers from across Reading to support their “exemplary” former colleague.

He told The Independent: “No one should have to suffer in the way that Ruth did ever again. I am thankful every day that Ruth Perry was in my life looking after my kids.

“I am thankful every day and I will do absolutely anything I can to ensure that her legacy is maintained and no one has to go through what she went through.”

He added: “I knew Ruth for 14 years. For her to be reduced to tears in a meeting – that is not normal. That is not acceptable. That was not about what was found, that was about the behaviour which was aimed at her.”

He insisted that one-word judgements are “absolutely not fit for purpose”, adding that he has been flooded with messages from teachers with their own traumatic experiences with the schools watchdog.

“Ofsted have to accept that there are consequences to heads’ mental wellbeing from their actions,” he added.

Samaritans can be called on 116 123, or emailed at jo@samaritans.org