The grim truth about stress deaths

18th January 2008 at 00:00
Ofsted has reason to be worried, I'd say. One more head has taken his own life and the coroner "couldn't exclude the imminence of the inspection as the cause". That makes six now, doesn't it? Not including the very sick teacher who felt duty-bound to come in for an inspection and died on the school floor.

OK, perhaps a couple of those suicides ran rotten schools that were in urgent need of inspection. But surely a regime that possibly causes deaths is unacceptable? An Ofsted spokesperson said: "If there is concern that an inspection may cause stress, the inspector can offer additional information to mitigate it." What nonsense. Of course an Ofsted visit causes stress.

On Saturday, I attended the retirement party of a head who has had enough of today's ludicrous, target-driven agenda. Her school has had outstanding reports, yet the mere mention of Ofsted caused every teacher in the room to groan with loathing.

It wasn't always like this. Before Ofsted, we had local inspectors who formed relationships with schools, offered sound advice and ensured those in their charge made continual progress. HM Inspectors, too, were wise and knowledgeable. They visited infrequently but could sum up a school in minutes. Nobody relished being inspected, but it was usually a positive and helpful experience - and, dear God, nobody risked dying as a result.

These days, all schools are expected to be identical - and that's the problem. No matter whether the school is in a posh part of town or the middle of a council estate and coping with horrendous social problems, you're still expected to crank your results up year on year. Reaching level four at the end of key stage 2 is the sole indicator of primary success. Nothing else matters. And to make sure you set high enough targets, every school now has an external school improvement partner, whose job it is to persuade the senior management team to push targets ever higher. No matter if it's a weak cohort or one with many special needs. Force those levels up - or else. Children? Irrelevant. Just show me your targets and graphs.

And when Ofsted arrives, that's the first thing they look at. Ten years ago, my school underwent a difficult inspection because our results were lower than usual. We knew they would be: it was a low- ability cohort. But that wasn't good enough, and the inspection team (which included a farmer's wife - hardly an expert on inner-city education) set out to prove we were failing. Two of my best teachers were intimidated, and suffered for months. We fought the inspection result for two years, with considerable success. But the way Ofsted closed ranks to protect its own was highly revealing.

Trusting schools to do a professional job without interference has long since fallen by the wayside. So has individuality, although my school clings on to it tenuously. We recently had a one-day inspection by a pleasant, newly appointed Ofsted HMI, who came to see how we were managing the new primary strategy. By the end of the day, she had discovered that our school works really well - despite not fitting her clipboard stereotype. Sadly, I suspect she'll soon be conditioned into becoming another Ofsted clone - especially if their headed notepaper is anything to go by. "Raising standards, improving lives", it shouts. There isn't a scrap of evidence that it does either, as the current level of suicides aptly demonstrates.

Mike Kent, Headteacher at Comber Grove Primary School, Camberwell, south London.

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