Ruth Perry tragedy raises fundamental questions about narrative of educational standards

Across my 30 plus years in journalism I’ve always felt a deep unease at reporting Ofsted inspection results. As an editor I’ve made it policy to ask my reporters to tone down the dubious triumphalism of such press releases, or even better ignore them completely. And then there are those dreaded ‘special measures’ announcements, which local newspapers love to dissect and turn into garish front page headlines about chaos and anarchy breaking out in classrooms and staffrooms.

Of course the good schools were always touting Ofsted adjectives like ‘outstanding’, ‘exceptional’, ‘exemplary’ and such but, for all my unease and profound dislike of the whole meritocracy concept, I never in all my days thought that the single word ‘inadequate’ – which will forever be spelt I.N.A.D.E.Q.A.T.E. – would cause some hard working, innocent soul to take their own life.

At 02:15am on Christmas morning last year, Ruth Perry woke and wrote down her thoughts while her two teenage daughters and husband slept.

“I.N.A.D.E.Q.U.A.T.E keeps flashing behind my eyes,” she said.

She had been head teacher at Caversham Primary School in Reading for 13 years, and the school had always been judged by Ofsted as ‘outstanding’. Just a month before Ruth wrote that note, Ruth had been told that Ofsted inspectors were going to downgrade her school to ‘inadequate’, a complete crash from top to bottom rating.

Ruth’s desperate handwritten notes, discovered by her surviving family and published widely this week, not only reveal the desperation and emotional devastation that Ofsted inspections impose on schools and teaching staff, but bear moving testimony to both the wider social ramifications of rating schools in this destructively crude manner, and the need for fundamental changes in the whole way we view and manage our country’s education system.

In every respect Ruth Perry was a pillar of her local community, and her entire life ought to have born testimony to the value and importance of a state education. Born and brought up in the wealthy Reading suburb of Caversham, Ruth had been a pupil at the school, along with her sister Ruth. She would later return as deputy head, and then head teacher. She was an educator at the peak of her career, and her handwritten letters, the testimonies of family friends made after hear death, and the conclusions drawn by the inquest, her GP and others reveal unquestionably the fateful Ofsted inspection was a major factor in her death.

It is one of the saddest realities of contemporary life that more often than not it takes an unexpected and unnecessary death to open up a meaningful narrative about societal errors and injustices. With the glorious benefit of hindsight – the whole area of Ofsted inspections was something that always had the potential for a human catastrophe of some sort.

“I write this to you as parents on the evening of 18th November 2022 to say how utterly broken I am by the Ofsted inspection,” wrote Mrs Parry in draft notes discovered of a letter she intended write to parents.

“I have given my life to CPS [Caversham Primary School]. I have only ever wanted children to leave happy and confident on the next stage of their journey, and I have been devastated by the impact of how I have done a disservice to the community.”

For me this fear of a “disservice to the community” speaks poignantly and tragically of the kind of ramifications that few up to this point had taken seriously. Notes found elsewhere reveal that Mrs Parry was not only deeply troubled by the personal ramifications of the Ofsted judgement for herself, her family and the school, but the far wider ripples it could send through her community – she even made reference to a poorly-rated school causing a drop in local house prices.

As anyone who’s been on the receiving end of an Ofsted downgrade, or even worse the dreaded ‘special measures’ demand can tell you, such external and arbitrary judgements can have catastrophic consequences for not only the affected school, but for the entire community surrounding it, and that it supports.

To give us a bit of background – the schools watchdog Ofsted was created in 1992, after successive governments became increasingly concerned about what were perceived as plummeting education standards across the UK. I say ’perceived’ because measuring academic standards has become one of the most complex of sciences founded on nothing of substance. It’s a general fact of life that as each generation passes through youth, adulthood and into the ageing process it’s moral and ethical signposts become  fixed, and grounded increasingly in nostalgia, real or perceived.  So whether or not educational standards have dropped over the past half century or so is actually incredibly difficult – and potentially misleading – to measure.

One can look at some fundamentals – for instance competence in mathematics, linguistic skills and cognitive abilities, but even these pillars of learning shift over time, and in response to societal change. I remember vividly being told during my 1960s education that I’d never get anywhere in the world if I didn’t study and learn my logarithm tables – I didn’t have the faintest idea then what they were for, and I have even less idea now! I’m sure someone, somewhere found them highly useful, but competence at logarithms is hardly a guaranteed yardstick for intellect and societal usefulness over a lifetime.

For decades, perhaps centuries, teaching was the only profession where the customer was always at fault – lessons were delivered by rote, and if your child didn’t excel it was either because they were too lazy, too dull to learn or weren’t doing enough homework. There was never any suggestion that the delivery of the service might be the problem. Ofsted came into being to address this question but just as previously teachers had treated pupils and parents as soft targets for blame, Ofsted thought the same about the teaching profession. What developed was a behemoth of inspections, testing and recommendations that focussed minutely on both the performance of teachers, and the learning materials being delivered.

The culpability of students was swiftly and ruthlessly replaced with the culpability of the school, and both the establishments and the staff were sucked into a relentless regime of assessments, additional teaching demands and vastly expanded subject areas. One RE teacher I spoke to recently grumbled that the amount of material and topics he was required to deliver at GCSE had more than tripled in the past 10 years, to the extent it’s now extremely challenging to give even the most adept child a fighting chance of an A grade pass. Extend this across the entire curriculum, add the new subject areas being created, the invasive level of external scrutiny of staff and the dreaded Ofsted school league tables and you get some idea of the challenges currently facing teachers, heads and schools.

Little wonder that we have a burnout pandemic and many schools teetering on the brink for the want of teachers.

To make matters worse, there has been a growing but entirely unsurprising body of evidence to confirm that, since the 1990s, mechanisms such as Ofsted inspections have had little or no benefit to the education system, and may even be having a negative effect on GCSE outcomes.

I wouldn’t dispute that we need some mechanism to ensure educational standards in the UK are maintained, but a meritocracy is never going to be the answer. One of the difficult ironies about Catholic education in particular is that it’s founding ethos is rooted deeply in the quest for equality and providing education for the poor and marginalised (think the likes of Fr Nugent, Fr Plater and numerous religious orders), yet it’s embedment in the current secular education system means that it’s contribution is measured by the same meritocratic mechanisms that monitor secular schools. If it is true, and we’re certainly fond of saying it, that Catholic schools genuinely do impart a more person-centred model of education, then we have something quite profound and important to offer the wider educational establishment. However, that should go beyond simply providing more Catholic schools; we really should consider a far broader chaplaincy-style outreach to state schools, perhaps even providing a much-need buffer between staff and pupils, and the interferences of the state.

Whatever the outcome of the current backlash, I do hope profoundly that the name of Ruth Parry will stay with us as the catalyst for a fundamental overhaul of a regulatory mechanism about which so many of us have felt a deep unease for so long.

And if it stops those dreadfully divisive and theologically questionable press releases about ‘outstanding’ Ofsted inspection results, that would be a small, added bonus for me.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian