THE tragic death of a primary school headteacher in England has again raised questions about school inspections. In particular, their purpose and the ways in which they are conducted and reported.

It’s thought the headteacher took her own life following a critical report by inspectors of The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted). Her family believe she did so as a “direct result of Ofsted’s inspection report”. They condemned its conclusions as “sensationalist” and based on “scant evidence”.

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I have no insight regarding that tragedy, but it seems odd that, on the first day of an inspection, the head was reportedly told the school was to be downgraded from “outstanding” to “inadequate”. The downgrading was largely due to the consequence of an inadequate rating for leadership and management. All other aspects were rated as good. To an outsider, it seems as if the head, for whom this was a first inspection, was hung out to dry. It appears the entire school was downgraded due to the head’s perceived failings as a leader and manager.

One wonders if the Ofsted inspectors didn’t have a duty of care regarding the head. When it comes to inspection reports, there’s no hiding place for headteachers. Reports rarely, if ever, identify individual teachers. Their strengths and weaknesses are usually conflated and generalised as “the staff.” There’s only one head teacher however, and there’s no doubt whose performance is being scrutinised and described. This can be particularly hard on heads of small schools who might work and live in the same community. It’s not only their professionalism being questioned. Their self-concept and social standing in the community can also be undermined by a critical report.

In 2008, a primary head in Scotland died in distressing circumstances, shortly after a less than positive inspection by HM Inspectors (HMIE). Her family believed the two events were linked, suggesting “her professional being” had been undermined. Following a subsequent Fatal Accident Inquiry, the sheriff concluded the inspection was not a “fact relevant” to the head’s death, but had no doubt her death was “inextricably linked to the outcome of the inspection report”. He added she had been “an outstanding headteacher”.

School inspections undoubtedly serve a useful purpose. Teachers, in general, are hard working. There are times however, when work and time pressures prevent them stepping back and critically examining their performance. Scotland has done much ground-breaking work to assist teachers’ professional reflection and evaluation of their own work. Inspections can validate their conclusions, preventing self-evaluation segueing seamlessly into self-delusion. Inspections can allay any suspicion that teachers are marking their own homework. Additionally, parents are entitled to an independent appraisal of the extent to which schools are meeting the learning needs of their children.

As a teacher and later headteacher, I tried to approach inspection positively. It could certainly be stressful, especially in the days when inspections lasted three weeks. Over that lengthy time, there was little prospect of pulling the wool over inspectors’ eyes. Contrary to staffroom mythology, I didn’t find inspectors came with a fault-finding agenda. On the contrary, they took greater pleasure from identifying and sharing good practice.

Over the years, inspection and reporting its outcomes have undergone many changes. Professor Ken Muir’s recent report, Putting Learners at the Centre, takes a fresh look at the roles and work of Scotland’s Inspectorate. He favours a more “supportive, formative and creative” approach to inspection. In its positive response, the Scottish Government expressed support for a system that would facilitate a “trusting environment”.

If the spirit of Professor Muir’s recommendations prevails, inspection should become less stressful, especially for headteachers. His recommendations should go some way to preventing further tragedies. It’s right that inspections should be, in Professor Muir’s words, “supportive, creative and formative”. It’s important however, to strike a balance. Let’s not lose the essential challenge and cutting edge of inspections. External challenge, with a human face, is essential to professional reflection on the why, what, and how of learning and attainment in our classrooms and schools.