A Fresh Start for Ofsted: New Chief Inspector Prioritises Empathy and Review Following Tragedy
After what can only be described as the inspectorate’s most turbulent year, there is a new dawn for Ofsted at the beginning of 2024, as Sir Martyn Oliver takes up post as the new Chief Inspector. So, who is the new Chief, and what will this mean for the future of Ofsted?
Oliver brings 28 years of experience as a teacher and school leader to the position. During the past 14 years, he has served as headteacher and CEO at the Outwood Grange Academies Trust. This well-known trust oversees 41 primary and secondary academies in England's Midlands and northern regions, where a reputation for hard-nosed perseverance towards school improvement is prevalent. Oliver describes himself as a ‘proud northerner’, growing up in Lincolnshire. Having attended a secondary modern school; he was the first in his family to go to university.
Sir Martyn has announced that ‘inspections will not resume immediately’. Instead, Oliver is launching an internal inquiry into how Ofsted responded to the tragic death of headteacher Ruth Perry. This move comes in response to the coroner’s verdict on the tragic death of Mrs Perry, where the inquest ruled that Ofsted contributed to her suicide a year ago. The decision to downgrade her primary school to inadequate added weight to concerns about the immense pressure placed on schools by the inspectorate.
The previous online briefing on teacher welfare by Sir Martyn's predecessor, Amanda Spielman, was in my opinion rightly criticised as insufficient in response to the coroner's notice to prevent future deaths. Sir Martyn's decision to pause inspections whilst training is undertaken by inspectors is a significant improvement towards recognising the challenges schools are facing.
Sir Martyn aims to bring about, in his words, a ’fresh start’ for Ofsted. In his first interviews, he outlined his vision for a more empathetic and less defensive inspection process, deeply integrated into the education system.
The decision to temporarily halt inspections, which union leaders had called for, allows Ofsted to address the concerns raised by the coroner and provide additional training for inspectors on handling anxious headteachers. The pause is not merely a delay but a strategic move to ensure a well-prepared and responsive restart. Oliver acknowledged the ongoing efforts by Ofsted but emphasised the need for a comprehensive review, including examining their response to Ruth Perry's death. Oliver plans to meet with Perry's sister, Julia Waters, who advocates for reforms within Ofsted.
To address the mental health aspect of inspections, Ofsted has initiated ‘emergency training for lead inspectors’ and promised broader mental health awareness training for all inspectors. Mental Health First Aid England will contribute to this training, fostering a supportive and understanding approach to dealing with school leaders.
Oliver expressed his commitment to being ‘more open’ and listening to the education sector's views on necessary changes. He aims to avoid imposing his ideas but rather ‘facilitate a collaborative process’. While he believes a new framework may not be essential, he remains open to changes if they are deemed necessary for the current inspection model. When questioned about potential actions regarding proposals from the Confederation of School Trusts for a thorough review of the grading system, encompassing the validity and reliability of judgments, he responded, ‘I think we should review all of this.’
Emphasising Ofsted's mission, he said, ’Ofsted’s role is to deliver the best inspections. My absolute and only priority is to do that.’ He shared, ’While I have thousands of ideas, I’m trying to contain them because... ‘a sense of the system’ means listening to people, not just for the immediate response but also to produce a longer-term plan, which is more sustained and more considered going forward.’
However, he acknowledged the potential impact of timing, stating, ‘The timing of any changes and the timing of a general election: it could be that nothing changes, it could be that things change significantly, I just need to be sensible’.
Sir Martyn also says that he understands the difficulties schools are dealing with, such as increased absenteeism, a record number of fines given to parents for term-time holidays, and worsening student behaviour linked to insufficient support for mental health and other social issues. A recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in June 2023, highlighted that schools have managed well, compared to other public services, during a decade of cuts and the impact of a global pandemic. However, endemic serious issues such as teacher recruitment and retention difficulties, special needs provision and other concerns need urgent attention not only from Ofsted, but the Department for Education and other overseeing institutions.
The Chief Inspector plans to conduct a 'big listen' to gather feedback from the sector and ensure that any proposed changes align with the needs and expectations of educators. Additionally, he intends to explore ways to integrate school leaders into the inspection process more efficiently, creating a ’faster track’ for their involvement.
Oliver is advocating a more open and transparent approach, pledging to share not only training materials but also to open up Ofsted's extensive database for researchers and academics. He views this as a step towards improving its overall performance.
So, in conclusion, we need to ask, will Sir Martyn Oliver's leadership signal a true turning point for Ofsted? It will be interesting for all of us in education to see if his stated emphasis on empathy, collaboration, and transparency will permeate and contribute to a more considerate and effective inspection system. Moreover, will the internal review, mental health training, and consultation with the education sector really demonstrate Ofsted's genuine effort to learn from past challenges and shape a future where the inspectorate plays a positive role in raising educational standards?
Come on Sir Martyn, we’re all waiting with bated breath.
SSS Author & Former Headteacher