Like many people I was shocked and dismayed to hear of the tragic death of Ruth Perry. However, I was not surprised. School staff and headeachers are currently under immense pressure, only some of which is related to Ofsted inspections. Some individuals, unfortunately, can reach crisis point. I feel particularly strongly about the story because I work as part of a consultancy that supports headteachers and their teams through coaching and supervision. Many of the individuals that I work with feel that they and their colleagues are unfairly put under extreme pressure. Many heasteachers are under intense scrutiny to the point where it is making them physically and/or mentally unwell. For some, the only option is to leave the profession entirely. Is Ofsted failing our schools (and our communities) potentially increasing the number of people leaving the profession and so leaving schools with staff shortages?
There are clear benefits of regularly monitoring and inspecting schools to ensure that all children have access to a high-quality education. Ofsted performs a vital role. However, rather than providing an accurate view of a school which is thoughtful and balanced, many school leaders feel that the current system results in a rushed and possibly persecutory snapshot assessment. They say that despite their teams working flat out for years and maintaining and developing their schools through an extremely difficult time, that much of their achievement is ignored or under valued. Their school might be reduced to a single word rating: “Outstanding”; “Good”;” “Requires Improvement” or “Inadequate”. Ofsted have made clear that fewer schools will be given the top ratings and so the chance of a school’s rating dropping is now increased. Being given one of the two bottom ratings can be highly damaging. It may result in the headteacher losing their job, being black listed from other roles, massive public criticism, staff losses, fewer school applications, loss of funding and potentially forced academy status. Consequently, school leaders can feel publicly shamed as a failure. It often detrimentally impacts on staff (and consequently therefore students) possibly undermining the aim of an inspection.
Ruth Perry’s death provoked a tsunami of opinion about how much Ofsted and the government were to blame. It has been reported in the Guardian paper last month that at least ten other headteachers’ deaths have been linked to Ofsted inspections by coroners. The reality is more complex. The strain put upon schools is also a result of a global pandemic, deteriorating mental health of both students and staff, alongside a generalised neglect of schools and educators that has been gathering pace for a number of years. If we want our schools to function to their best, then we need to invest in them and support staff. Many of which are already very vulnerable, and for some, the fear of an impending Ofsted inspection may be the final straw pushing them towards a dangerous crisis point.
On the lead up to an inspection, headteachers can be on constant alert, as only one day’s notice is sometimes given leaving them in a state of panic and catastrophisation. The uncertainty and lack of control over many aspects of the inspection can push heads and staff into a ‘fight/flight’ response: a series of bodily and defensive mental processes (raised heartbeat, breathing difficulties, distorted thinking and others.) triggered by the amygdala our alarm bell system. School staff may be locked into this anxious state for weeks or months. Longterm, this can be extremely damaging to their physical and mental health. It can prevent them from thinking in a flexible and nuanced way, which is obviously fundamental for running a school effectively.
Ofsted have publicly made clear that they will not allow schools to use the pandemic as an excuse for not achieving what some consider to be very aggressive targets. But is it possible to attain ‘continuous improvement’ with such a lack of resources and support? Many head teachers think not. They have reached their limit. They have had to work to impossible standards throughout the last three years – not only adapting to online teaching with no additional resources or training but also to fill the gaps of social and mental health care for desperate students and their families. Rather than being applauded for this, they are now punished by an unreasonably rigid system that prioritises academic targets.
Schools are having to manage much more than their pupils’ learning. Following the “return to normal” schools are still expected to step in and keep children and families out of real danger and harm. Headteachers have told me how they despair at being criticised for behaviour and safety of children outside the school premises and even outside of school hours. This responsibility puts a huge emotional toll on school staff. They are regularly having to make “life and death” decisions as they support extremely vulnerable and traumatised students and families. This can lead to instances of “vicarious trauma” manifesting as PTSD like symptoms or “burnout”: a complete physical, mental, and emotional fatigue. As Rachel Naomi Remen writes in ‘Kitchen Table Wisdom’, “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.”
More and more schools are trying to tackle this with reflective practice, coaching and supervision to help staff process these difficult feelings and prevent them from becoming unwell. Sadly, because of funding or staff shortages this may not be an option for all. Without this targeted emotional support, many committed and hard-working heads and their teams are extremely susceptible to the physical and mental harm from long term stress and trauma.
So how do we help staff and headteachers to manage their anxiety around these inspections, learn from the visits and feel supported in what they need to do to further improve schools? In my coaching and supervision work with school staff, we focus on the following:
- Encouraging schools to have supervision or coaching from a coach who also is trained in counselling or therapy. If this is not possible, then creating a space within the team to think together about the emotional impact of their jobs can share the emotional burden across the whole team and help protect individuals from physical or mental decline.
- Educating school staff on how to spot the signs of mental distress, vicarious trauma and burnout. Early intervention is key here. If school staff are supported with difficulties early on, they can expect to make a quick recovery. Consultancies like our own can help here and the Mental Health First Aider initiative is invaluable as well, (mhfaengland.org).
- Helping school staff and heads to identify when they are in fight/flight. By using breathing techniques and some coaching tools such as the ABC model we can help people recover their sense of safety and reduce anxiety.
- Coaching headteachers to develop and maintain reasonable expectations of themselves. A useful coaching tool is to analyse what is within our control and what is not. By focusing on things that are outside of our control we waste our energy and resources and become overwhelmed by impossible threats and an uncertain future. By developing realistic plans for those things within our control, or at least those that we might influence, we reconnect again with our own agency.
- Thinking about the bigger picture around Ofsted. Helping the heads to think about working collaboratively with Ofsted can reduce feelings of being exposed and judged.
- Helping schools to provide a contextual view of their school and community to Ofsted and help shape realistic targets, ideally working together to source additional targeted support where needed.
- Doing a realistic and positive appraisal of the achievements of the school over the recent years – considering culture, student experience, staff development and motivation. This can be done throughout the school involving all staff, students and the larger school community. These need to be solid in the leadership’s minds so that they can talk confidently about these themes with inspectors and improve buy-in and support from the parent community. If too much value is placed on the summary rating, then there is a risk that these achievements and the hard work of the school staff group are undermined. It can also encourage the staff, parents, and pupils to get ‘on message’. If the whole school community can be in touch with these achievements in a more consistent way, then they can remain supportive of the school regardless of whether the rating decreases.
- Encouraging headteachers to talk to their LEAs, academy trusts, and to understand their expectations. When we are not clear about expectations, we can often be our own harshest critics and we fear the worst.
- Helping headteachers and their staff to move out of a perfectionistic mindset based around success and failure and move towards an idea of “good enough”. Perfectionistic thinking is corrosive and can leave people feeling like they are failing. This links with the theory of growth mindset, where mistakes and struggle are considered to be inevitable, and that valuable learning and resilience comes from them. It creates a culture where feedback is invited and valued because it is part of a process of development and creativity.
By preparing in this way for inspections, headteachers can model a solid and reflective attitude to the rest of the staff team. It will focus them on their achievements as well as motivating them to be able to identify and manage challenges and developmental areas. This should then give the best chances of using the Ofsted process to positively influence the future of the school.
To be fit for purpose, Ofsted’s inspection regime needs to not just focus on the negative but provide thoughtful and balanced feedback to schools. By force fitting a whole school, its staff, pupils and community into one of 4 possible ratings, it risks demotivating an already beaten down workforce. Ofsted needs to better support schools by engaging collaboratively with them before, during and after the inspections. Finally, they need to communicate the results of these inspections in a more nuanced, thoughtful and non-threatening way recognising strengths as well as highlighting areas for collaborative improvement.
Jacqueline Glynn is a psychotherapist and partner at Healthy Minds at Work LLP , a consultancy that supports mental wellbeing in the workplace and predominately supports schools (www.healthymindsatwork.co.uk)