What is Ofsted? Family of former headteacher Ruth Perry upset that single-word ratings will stay

A photograph of Ruth Perry attached to the fence outside John Rankin Schools in Newbury, Berkshire (PA Wire)
A photograph of Ruth Perry attached to the fence outside John Rankin Schools in Newbury, Berkshire (PA Wire)

Ofsted has said it will maintain its single-word inspection ratings despite calls for a shake-up following the death of Ruth Perry.

A government statement on Thursday stated that single-word summaries will continue to be used to describe a school’s overall performance.

Ms Perry, a headteacher, took her own life following an Ofsted inspection in 2022.

A coroner confirmed that a critical Ofsted report did in fact contribute to the death of the 53-year-old teacher.

The coroner said the inspection had "lacked fairness, respect and sensitivity".

Following this, a report led the Education Select Committee to recommend that gradings such as ‘outstanding’ and ‘good’ should be scrapped.

The committee said that while they still want “strong accountability” in schools, they want to put in place a more empathetic approach and recognised that relationships between the school and the ranking body had become “extremely strained” and “worryingly low".

But, despite this, the system is continuing - at least for now.

A Department for Education statement read: “There are significant benefits from having an Ofsted overall effectiveness grade. In our view, the priority is to look for ways to improve the current system rather than developing an alternative to it."

Ms Perry’s family have hit back at the ruling.

Her sister Professor Julia Waters told the Guardian: “This is not the time for more delays and lip service… It is time to act, to save lives, and create a system in which parents and teachers can have confidence.”

Ofsted chief Sir Martyn Oliver said in January it must listen to the criticism it has received following the suicide of Mrs Perry.

“I am determined that we shall learn those lessons and we shall review our practices, we shall work with others and we shall respond fully to the coroner's inquest,” he said.

Sir Martyn Oliver, Ofsted’s new chief inspector (PA Media)
Sir Martyn Oliver, Ofsted’s new chief inspector (PA Media)

What is Ofsted?

Ofsted is short for the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills. The body inspects services that provide education or skills trainers for students regardless of their age. It also inspects and regulates services that care for children and young people such as children’s homes.

Ofsted inspectors go to view services under their remit and provide a rating dependent on what they find on their visit. They are legally allowed to arrive with little notice. They report directly to Parliament, parents, carers and commissioners.

Ofsted is a non-ministerial department of the UK Government, although its ethos is to be “independent and impartial”.

In each area, services are graded and then placed into one of four categories: Grade one (outstanding), grade two (good), grade three (requires improvement) and grade four (inadequate).

What are the Ofsted ratings for schools?

There are also four overall ratings.

Ofsted Grade 1: Outstanding.

Ofsted Grade 2: Good.

Ofsted Grade 3: Requires Improvement.

Ofsted Grade 4: Inadequate.

Can Ofsted fire a headteacher?

No. Ofsted has no power to fire a headteacher and it does not instruct governing bodies to do so either.

Are Ofsted inspections compulsory?

Yes. All childcare providers caring for children from September 1 following their fifth birthday up to the age of eight, must register with Ofsted on the Compulsory Childcare Register (CCR).

How often does a school get an Ofsted inspection?

Ofsted inspections can take place at any point from five school days after the first day pupils attend in the autumn term.

Schools are normally judged every four years, but a lot can depend on the type of institution and the previous grading the school received.

If there was a previous “inadequate” or “requires improvement” grading, inspectors can visit more frequently.

Can Ofsted shut a school down?

Yes, but after a lengthy process. For any service that has been judged as inadequate and placed in a category of concern, inspectors will visit the academy to check on its progress until it can be removed from the category.

Schools placed in a “special measures” category will have two years to turn things around, while serious weaknesses schools have 18 months.

Why are inspections changing?

The changes come after the Early Years Alliance charity, which advocates for nurseries, preschools, and childminders, called for the inspection results from Ofsted to be reviewed. The inspection process for nurseries, pre-schools, and childminders is different from that for schools but they all obtain the same total grade.

The charity found that many schools found inspections to be stressful, according to their survey on early years staff. The survey found that 1,586 out of 1,708 surveyed staff said inspections were a source of stress “sometimes” or “often”. While 1,227 out of 1,601 would remove the single-word grading.

Ofsted said it wants inspections to be “as constructive as possible” and noted that “inspections can be challenging”.

The schools’ watchdog previously refused to drop one-word ratings despite calls for inspection reforms following Mrs Perry's death.

Critics say the one-word ratings are too simplistic while The National Education Union (NEU) is calling for the grading system to be replaced with a “supportive, effective and fair” accountability system.

Ruth Perry, the former headteacher at Caversham Primary School in Reading, took her own life while waiting for the publication of a report into her school that was expected to downgrade it from “outstanding” to “inadequate”. Ms Perry’s family said the 53-year-old had described the inspection in November as the worst day of her life.