The Human Cost of School Leadership

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 30 March 2023
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Wellbeing

No one can fail to have been shocked at the story of Reading headteacher Ruth Perry, who sadly took her own life while waiting for the release of an Ofsted inspection report which was about to downgrade her school from “outstanding” to “inadequate”.

The BBC reported on reaction to this terrible news highlighting a statement by the family;

 "We are in no doubt that Ruth's death was a direct result of the pressure put on her by the process and outcome of an Ofsted inspection at her school”.

"We do not for an instant recognise Ofsted's 'inadequate' judgement as a true reflection of Ruth's exemplary leadership or of the wonderful school she led."

The BBC also reported that a petition calling for Education Secretary Gillian Keegan and Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman to review the inspection at Caversham Primary, and to make changes to the system, has so far gathered more than 150,000 signatures.

Geoff Barton General Secretary of ASCL has underlined how serious this issue is for schools and school leaders in his statement to Amanda Spielman;

“The death of Ruth Perry is an extreme example of the damage done by the high-stakes nature of the inspection system, but the truth is that it often has a catastrophic effect on individuals. A short pause to inspections to consider this matter seems a very moderate request, and would help Ofsted show the profession that it is listening. The Chief Inspector acknowledges that reforming inspections to remove blunt and reductive one-word of two-word judgements is a legitimate debate, but there are no plans by Ofsted or the government to even consider this question as far as we know. There must surely be some reflection following this tragedy.”

The Association of School and College Leaders has now published The Future of Inspection, a discussion paper seeking to fuel a debate that ultimately leads to a fairer, more constructive approach to school and college inspection.

 The proposals for long-term changes, which should only be introduced following thorough piloting and analysis of impact, include the removal of all graded judgements, to be replaced with a narrative description of a school or college’s strengths and weaknesses in different areas.

ASCL - ASCL calls for end to overall graded judgements in new paper on the future of inspection

One of Ruth’s headteacher colleagues interviewed in recent days reminded us that schools are complex organisations, like an ecosystem of interconnecting relationships. They operate through personal interaction and shared endeavour with all the anxieties and emotions that go with that in dealing with parental worries and children’s joys and sorrows. Making it all happen depends on the dedication, patience and skill of teachers and support staff and compassionate, people-centred-leadership. To be the kind of leader who can do this well and gain the trust of parents, children and staff means a deep personal commitment to the school community and identifying totally with it as if it was a huge family. In assessing the quality of education happening in a school, identifying issues for improvement must surely be balanced with recognition of the multitude of good things a school does and the difficulties of accommodating the needs of all parts of that school community with the limitations which today’s world brings.

In Northern Ireland ETNI has a different approach from Ofsted which its charter says aims to reduce stress for those involved in inspection. A joint approach with schools though self evaluation aims to support improvement and avoid a “high stakes” inspection system. The “inadequate” grading term is not used here. Regardless of the nature of any inspection system however, the fact must be kept in the front of our minds that the mental health of head teachers must be safeguarded during these processes. People with the leadership skills and the courage to take on headship roles are a rare commodity and they should be better valued and supported by the education system.

So how can headteachers cope with these kinds of stresses and challenges?

Kate Smith is a former headteacher and she is now network project leader of HeadsUp4HTs which provides free support to headteachers across the UK, including coaching, crisis calls, and peer support coaching sessions.

She makes the point that in spite of having hundreds of interactions with staff, pupils and parents every day, headship is often a lonely, isolated job. She feels that this stems from fear of accountability and competition between schools both of which can inhibit leaders from asking for help. An obvious answer that she advocates for heads is to join peer group sessions with other school leaders where there is an opportunity to share problems, hear good ideas and ask for advice from others “sitting in the same seat”. 

These recommendations all chime with my own personal experience as a head and latterly as a Regional Officer for ASCL. The support and shared experience of fellow head teachers always proved invaluable in dealing with the challenges which inevitably came to us all. Ruth Perry’s sister Julia Waters told the Guardian newspaper that she had described the inspection in November last year as the worst day of her life. She had been “an absolute shadow of her former self” while waiting for the report’s publication. Surely it cannot be in the best interest of anyone, children, parents or teachers to place a hard working dedicated professional person in such a position.

Headteacher killed herself after news of low Ofsted rating, family says | Ofsted | The Guardian

Head teachers themselves will be the first to acknowledge the need for external accountability, safeguarding checks and challenge to poor performance. It is to be hoped that this tragedy will alert the wider education community to the need for closer co-operation between teaching unions, employers, government officers and school leaders in agreeing the best possible approaches to school accountability and improvement and a greater sharing of the responsibility for making it work in a way that respects the well-being of everyone.

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This article is correct at 30/03/2023

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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