On 20 March 2023, ICT teacher and schools consultant Lee Parkinson put up a spreadsheet on his website and various social media interfaces, asking teachers to record their thoughts about Ofsted inspections. By 14 April, 3,107 responses had been recorded, only 15 (0.5%) of which contained positive reflections on the process.
As a retired teacher, who taught psychology and child development in schools, colleges and universities for nearly 30 years, the anguish recorded by teachers on this spreadsheet has shocked, horrified and distressed me. While Ofsted inspections were certainly a cause for apprehension during my time in school, they were not the frankly abusive experiences described by respondents below, which at times make harrowing reading.
Some respondents provided a good overview of the general content of the whole narrative. For example:
“We were taken from outstanding to inadequate. The tone of the inspection was hostile, we were treated appallingly, and I personally was told to only speak when I was spoken to, notes taken from my hands. When I looked to complain, I realised Ofsted were untouchable. During the 2 days of inspection, staff were sick in toilets, cried, near passed out and to this day suffer the impact. [Ofsted] had an agenda and no evidence provided was going to change that”.
“Ofsted came with an agenda to downgrade. Ironically, they repeatedly queried us on wellbeing despite destroying the wellbeing of all the staff and community.”
“[The inspection was] brutal. Vicious. They came in with a clear agenda to downgrade us. Rude to staff. Kids were upset about being asked leading questions and cut off [when answering].”
Some neatly summarised opinions and feelings communicated by many other respondents:
“Ofsted inspections are all too often an excuse to intimidate, demean or bully educational professionals.”
“[The inspection made us feel] Stressful, judged, intimidated, restless, useless, not good enough, deflated, angry.”
The answers fell into several overlapping categories. These are summarised below, with a few example quotes.
Disrespect/hostility to staff
Staff reported that they, and the children were spoken to in a frequently disrespectful, and sometimes hostile manner.
There were multiple reports of staff being rudely cut off when they tried to explain or demonstrate a point to the inspectors,
“I once had an Ofsted inspector ask to see a form I’d sent out to parents. He looked at his watch and said, ‘you’ve 5 minutes – hurry, your grade is in the balance’.”
Several reported inspectors using ‘speak to the hand’ gestures:
“Our Ofsted inspector held her hand up in front and asked us to ‘stop talking, I’ve heard enough’… We felt like criminals being interrogated.”
“Ofsted [Inspectors] put their hands in front of staff faces and said: “I don’t want to listen to you anymore”.
“During my interview with the inspector, she said I had five minutes to justify all I had done. Whilst I was talking, she put her hand in my face and… shouted ‘Stop, I can’t type that fast’.”
A range of different types of unprofessional behaviour were also reported, for example:
“An inspector questioned me in the middle of a lesson. He then went on to ask me which university I graduated from in front of my class.”
An early years teacher who offered photographs and formal observations for the learning journeys of children under five was told “ …with all due respect you could just be making that up and lying”.
Another teacher reported an inspector spreading 30 exercise books “all over the floor to look at, whilst I was teaching”.
Another teacher reported on an inspector sitting in on one of her lessons: “[He] visibly shook his head at me, rolled his eyes, tutted, sighed.”
One head teacher suggested that Ofsted bullying might be intentional: “We were told ‘they knock you down to build you back up’ as an excuse for the way we were given feedback.”
Disrespect/hostility to children
There were several reports of inspectors showing disrespect to children. Most prevalently, they tended to rudely cut off children who tried to politely engage them in conversation.
One school was even judged as allowing children to be ‘overfamiliar with adults’ because a child with special educational needs said “hi” and waved to an inspector.
Another teacher reported that an inspector snapped at a five-year-old who spoke to him: “I’m not here to talk to you.” In another school, when a five-year-old attempted to speak to an inspector, the inspector turned to the teacher and asked very abruptly “what did they say?’”
One tactless inspector “asked… ‘who are the low ability children’ in ear shot of all the children”.
Sometimes inspectors directly interfered in the lessons they were observing:
“The Ofsted inspector asked the children multiple generic questions… Huffing and rolling her eyes in front of the children [she said] ‘your children do not know what they should know, they simply don’t know enough… I’ve seen enough here.’ The pupils started to cry because they thought they’d failed.”
Lack of knowledge about the work of the school/ expectations of the children
There were two sub-themes within this category: inspectors with only secondary experience inspecting early years (three-to-five-year-olds) teaching, with no apparent knowledge of how to engage with children in that specific age group, and inspectors who seemed to have no understanding of teaching children with special educational needs (SEN).
“Ofsted inspectors [who had]… little to no experience of SEN negatively judg[ed] a… lack of formal learning for [SEN] children… ask[ing] why [SEN teaching] isn’t done more like [it is in the] mainstream.”
One inspector “caused [a SEN] child to have a meltdown by repeatedly moving their workbook away from them… Then reported that behaviour was out of control as a result of [this]”.
Whilst in another school: “[An inspector] asked a non-verbal child what safeguarding was”.
Early years teachers seemed to frequently come in for feedback that indicated inspectors had no idea how teaching is structured in the foundation stage of education. The list of comments in this category is long, but highlights (or lowlights) include teachers being told “the children were having too much fun”, with one inspector ‘explaining’ to the teacher: “you blurred the line between serious education and having fun”.
Another inspector stood over a four-year-old in the reception class “with their laptop in one hand and asked [her] to read her writing to the inspector”. This was early in the school year and the child in question had only just started speaking to the teacher, so she would not reply. As a result of this incident “their judgement was that none of the children in reception could read their writing”.
One inspector sternly “barked questions” at early years children, resulting in seven out of a class of 25 bursting into tears. The feedback was “you were too busy dealing with upset children rather than getting on with teaching the lesson”.
Another inspector asked Year 3 children (seven-to-eight-year olds) to explain “the complete process of photosynthesis… But this is a Key Stage 3 (eleven-to-fourteen year olds) objective”.
Additionally, Year 5 children (nine-to-ten-year-olds) were asked what they had learnt in geography two years ago, in Year 3. When they couldn’t answer fully, the inspector “judged that they hadn’t learnt anything”.
And finally, and most shockingly: “An Ofsted inspector at the nursery where I work made a bee line for a Black member of staff to grill her about ‘gang involvement.’ She carefully pointed out the children were three.”
However, there were even worse horror stories than this…
There were several reports of Ofsted refusing to postpone inspections in the week after pupils or teachers had died, and of insisting on carrying out full inspections in the 40C temperatures of summer 2022: “we had to teach the full curriculum, including PE, and were criticised for the children not seeming engaged as they all sweated and cried.”
Another teacher reported:
“Everything [about our Ofsted inspection] was rushed, poorly considered and viewed through a very negative lens. They found loose threads that they seemed intent on finding and then pulled them until we unravelled… [The inspector] asked a group of [primary school] girls if they had been sexually assaulted. [This only] came out after the inspection when one asked her parents what it meant… The overall grading was based on a series of big black marks that [the inspectors] set out to find.”
A secondary school teacher had a similar tale to tell:
“A male inspector took a female Year 10 student (aged fourteen-fifteen) out of the classroom to ask her: ‘Have you ever been called a slag or a slut at school?’”
Another reported incredulously: “I was once told the lesson was too dark and needed to be lighter. We were covering The Holocaust.”
Teacher and head teacher despair
The paralysing fear that Ofsted inspections engender in school management was highlighted by another secondary teacher: “I had a student badly beaten, kerb stomped and left. The school didn’t call the ambulance that was needed because they were worried it would trigger an Ofsted inspection.”
This level of fear was continually reiterated in the stories teachers told about the effects Ofsted had upon them, personally. These reports made especially harrowing reading.
Many of the entries on the spreadsheet were comments on the effects of Ofsted and its lead-in on the mental and physical health of teachers and head teachers. They principally related to the effects of preparation for Ofsted, the Ofsted visit itself, and the devastation following the experience.
There were anecdotal reports of several head teacher suicides over a number of years, and of suicidal thoughts amongst the respondents. Reports of being medically signed off for stress after an Ofsted inspection were legion. Some head teachers in their 50s commented that they were planning early retirement, so they did not have to go through another Ofsted inspection.
One head teacher discovered that another local head had killed herself after an inspection by the lead inspector who was now coming to her school. She described the effect upon her: “I didn’t sleep at all [and] had panic attacks.”
“The whole [Ofsted] experience was degrading, insulting and completely pointless. I went off on sick leave… The children… lost their teacher for 6 months.”
“After the first horrendous day and a second night of no sleep I almost crashed my car intentionally on the way in to work, as I reflect back I can only reason this with how desperate I was to get out of that awful situation.”
“After a weekend of uncontrollable crying [I] contemplated driving my car into a tree on the Monday morning to avoid an Ofsted call.”
“I have been teaching 13+ years and the amount of times I’ve driven home from work and thought about crashing my car is too many times!”
“I became depressed, put on antidepressants, had counselling, and at one stage, attempted suicide. Samaritans saved me. I am no longer a head teacher.”
Poignantly, a few partners of head teachers responded, detailing their worries: “at the end of [an Ofsted visit] I might find myself on suicide watch for the very person I love the most.”
Suggestions of a pre-imposed agenda
There was a thread running through the responses that suggested smaller schools felt themselves to be less compatible with the Ofsted agenda, and were cynical about the possibility that inspectors were motivated to find them wanting, due to the fact that such a finding opens them up to being forced to join an Academy chain:
“We had an Ofsted inspection where they came in with a very clear agenda. They don’t like the fact we’re not an academy… They couldn’t back this up, but [reported the] school has issues with boisterous behaviour… We are a small school, and we know all the students- no child was in distress… it was a complete fabrication to support their rhetoric.”.
“We had an independent safeguarding audit and got a glowing report. Ofsted came 2 weeks later and gave us the lowest possible rating… We then had a local authority [social services] visit about 2 weeks later who also gave us a glowing report. How can Ofsted view so differently?”
“In my opinion [Ofsted] had already decided that we were going to be downgraded from outstanding… they… went through our safeguarding records with a fine-tooth comb and then the lead inspector made [the personal/ social education lead] cry – they downgraded us based on this.”
However, teachers at the larger, Multiple Academy Trust (MAT schools) reported that there was also a price for them to pay:
“Ironically the school Ofsted rates as ‘outstanding’ on three consecutive inspections I found to be the most toxic environment I have ever had the misfortune to work in, and also nearly ended my teaching career… What Ofsted did not see was the bullying tactics used to divide and conquer. Teachers [were] forced to falsify evidence, risk assessments and data.”
“I’ve resigned from my post because the powers that be in our academy force ‘mocksteds’ [‘mock Ofsteds’] on me and my staff… constantly change their minds and use Ofsted as a threat. Over Xmas I had a breakdown at… dinner with my family.”
“I worked at a [named, well known MAT chain] school… Once the call came in, a trip was planned for the children with the most behavioural needs and SEN children for the day of the inspection… When Ofsted arrived, they already knew the result they were going to give us.”
“I have witnessed on two separate occasions a school in a powerful MAT with an intimidating head teacher successfully argue their way up an inspection grade. This was largely down to the head’s connections in education and the idea that the MAT’s main school was ‘too big to fail’.”
And finally, a view of Ofsted from an ‘outsider’ perspective: “Coming from Australia… I had already been teaching 12 years. The school aiming to keep its ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating ruined me as a teacher, forced me to teach in ways that I didn’t agree with, [it] was heart breaking to see how the kids, particularly those with additional needs were treated through the process.”
Some head teachers whose schools had received a ‘requires improvement grade’ described the impact that this had on their day-to-day existence thereafter, within local communities:
“The local newspaper, when the report was published, led with a headline declaring we were failing our children. Local Facebook trolls with no connection to the school laid into us with great delight.”
“I get parents shouting and screaming at staff in reception ‘even Ofsted says your school is shit’.”
“We lost 30 kids and have massively struggled to replace staff leaving… The head took early retirement shortly after and we took two attempts to get a new one.”
Another teacher reported that all but three teachers in his school had resigned, and: “…the head has just taken early retirement…. and I am planning to retire at the end of this year (early)… Thanks Ofsted. You are destroying us one by one.”
What now for Ofsted?
The Ofsted chief inspector, Amanda Spielman has refused to suspend inspections, following the high profile suicide of head teacher Ruth Perry, whose small primary school was dramatically downgraded last November.
The message from this data is that poor mental health and suicidal thoughts are rife amongst education staff, and focused on completely understandable fears of Ofsted inspections.
I asked Ruth Swailes, Nursery World’s trainer of the year 2021, who visits many schools and early years settings, if these findings surprised her. She replied that they didn’t; she’d had several teachers/head teachers disclose suicidal thoughts to her. She commented that she hoped sharing this collated information would reduce their isolation.
Ruth frequently comments “if it doesn’t benefit children, then why are we doing it?” And as a chartered psychologist, I can assure her that existing in an atmosphere of such stress, hopelessness and fear will certainly negatively impact upon children of all ages, who need calm, nurturing environments.
What is being described here is, conversely, the equivalent to living in a home where there is a continual undertone of coercive control between the adults:
- Intrusively monitoring activity
- Denying freedom and autonomy
- ‘Put down’ comments in front of children.
There may certainly be an argument for better training and selection of Ofsted inspectors, an issue taken up by the teachers union, the NEU in October last year; however this is for Ofsted to determine. The core message from this data is that it would be negligent of them, and the Department for Education to continue to send out ‘move on, nothing to see here’ platitudes.
Parents, teachers, head teachers and most of all, children – the adults of tomorrow – need answers, and positive action as soon as possible, to curtail this toxic situation.