Ofsted visit triggered head's suicide
It was four years since Hampton Hargate Primary's glowing Ofsted report and the inspectors announced that they would be calling again on Thursday.
Teachers at the school said their experienced head seemed "unusually relaxed" at the news. If he had any concerns about the visit, he did not discuss them with his staff.
But at an inquest this week it was clear that Jed Holmes, 53, had no intention of facing the inspectors. By Wednesday morning he was dead, having gassed himself on barbecue fumes in his lounge.
Gordon Ryall, the coroner, said he "could not exclude" the imminence of the inspection as the cause of the suicide. "It was that which triggered his action," Mr Ryall said. "That, coupled with problems he had been having, was one thing too much for him to deal with."
The suicide of the well-loved headteacher stunned the city. A highly competent head, he had improved the fortunes of two other primaries in Peterborough.
Mr Holmes had even attended a conference for headteachers planning their retirement, telling his family that he did not want to die young like so many others.
In 2003, Ofsted had praised Hampton Hargate for meeting "exceedingly high" targets in maths and English. Leadership at the school was described as "good".
Sarah Moss, the deputy head, said the school was still doing well four years later, and staff were confident about the inspection.
But at this week's inquest it emerged that Mr Holmes was burdened with work worries, few of which he confided to others because he was "a private man".
Hampton Hargate's national test results had been slipping as the school grew from 60 to 400 pupils and children came from more diverse backgrounds. Their combined average score in key stage tests had dropped from 283 in 2003 to 226 in 2006. "They're not good, are they?" he had told his deputy in the week of his death.
John Yardy, his friend and fellow primary head, said that the new style of Ofsted inspection, which focuses on the leadership team, would have put extra pressure on Mr Holmes.
"He was telling me he was worried about Ofsted, but not members of staff," Mr Yardy said.
The hearing revealed that Mr Holmes, who was divorced and lived alone, had visited his doctor in February over "an acute stress reaction related to work".
Moderate to severe depression was diagnosed and he was signed off work for several weeks. He returned on reduced hours, but was still arriving at 7.30am and leaving at six in the evening. If there was a meeting, he would stay as late as 9pm. When the caretaker was off sick for six weeks, Mr Holmes opened and shut the school.
In the months before the call from Ofsted, his doctor had said he was getting better, and staff noticed an improvement in his condition.
John Gribble, another fellow head and Mr Holmes's friend for 20 years, told The TES: "How could it be that a head as good as that kills himself before an Ofsted inspection? If the good ones feel to that degree, there must be something rotten at the core of the system.
"Jed believed education should be fun. He felt disgust at the way the system has changed and resentment that there was such intrusion into such a noble profession."
An Ofsted spokeswoman said inspectors were required to do all they could to minimise stress on teachers and heads. "If the headteacher is concerned that the visit may cause stress to themselves, pupils or other staff, the inspector has the opportunity to offer reassurance and additional information about the inspection," she said. "This should mitigate any stress the inspection might generate."
OTHER CASUALTIES OF THE SYSTEM
Jed Holmes is not the first teacher who appeared to find an Ofsted inspection the final straw.
Sarah Flooks, a teacher at Monega Primary in Forest Gate, east London, went missing last year on the day Ofsted was due to visit her school. After her body was found this year, police said that suicide was the most likely explanation.
Pamela Relf, a teacher with 30 years' experience, drowned herself in 2000 after a poor Ofsted report at her Cambridgeshire primary school. Many of the lessons had been judged as unsatisfactory, and a note she left showed that she was upset by the inspection.
The Teacher Support Network has said more than a quarter of callers to its helpline in the past 12 months have been suffering symptoms of stress and anxiety. To contact the network, call 08000 562 561.