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Teachers are being asked for £1 each to contribute to the legal defense of Ofsted

Photo by Flavio Pi on Unsplash

A group of senior school leaders is calling on teachers to donate £1 each to launch a legal challenge against Ofsted, pledging to hold the inspectorate to account for “ending careers” and causing a mental health crisis.

The vice-president of the Conservative education society, John Bald, a former Ofsted inspector, is fronting a crowdfunding page for the group, which is called Fair Judgement. The leaders fear the inspectorate may seek to punish their schools if they go public.

The collective legal challenge is a response to the death of the Berkshire primary headteacher Ruth Perry, who took her own life in January while awaiting an inspection report that downgraded her school from “outstanding” to “inadequate”, galvanising teachers to demand change.

The case will argue that the whole inspection regime is flawed, and Ofsted is not sufficiently transparent about the criteria it uses to downgrade schools. The group is collecting evidence about “unfair” judgments and their “devastating impact”, from heads, teachers, governors, parents and former inspectors in England.

The school leader heading Fair Judgement, who works at a primary school in north-west England and used to be a lawyer, told the Guardian: “There are thousands of people working in education who will be overjoyed to see Ofsted made answerable for the many careers they have ended and the fear and stress they have caused.”

Bald, who worked for Ofsted until 2006 and argues the inspectorate operates a “tyranny” over schools, said: “Inspectors are picking up on trivial points of detail, such as gaps in safeguarding administration, and using them to fail a school that is performing well. That is utterly disgraceful.”

He gave an example of a school that was downgraded largely because the head had noted down something a parent had said on paper rather than on a computer.

A teacher at a secondary school in Surrey, who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, described a recent Ofsted inspection in which the inspector interrupted her lesson to ask her – in front of all her 11- and 12-year-old pupils – to point out the most disadvantaged children.

She said: “I was so shocked I just stood there like a goldfish.” The teacher refused to openly point at the children, but offered to show the information on a seating plan, which the inspector refused. This also happened in other classrooms.

She said: “At the end of the day they told the head they had asked 10 teachers the same question ‘and only one of them knew’.” The teacher said this assumption was unfair and totally inaccurate.

In the past three weeks, more than 3,000 teachers have posted their own inspection horror stories, or talked about how inspections have affected their mental health, on a social media spreadsheet uploaded by a teacher who calls himself Mr P. He said fewer than 1% of comments were positive, despite chief inspector Amanda Spielman’s insistence last weekend that most schools find their inspection a “positive and affirming experience”.

Mr P said he had been contacted personally by a number of heads who had been deeply affected by Ruth Perry’s suicide because their own inspection had left them experiencing similar despair.

He said: “One told me that at the end of the first day of his inspection on the drive home he was contemplating [suicide], because it all felt so unfair.”

Yogi Amin, national head of public law at the legal firm Irwin Mitchell, who is leading the Ofsted case, said many school leaders felt complaining about an unfair inspection report would get them nowhere.

He said: “If this is a flawed inspection regime, where is the justice in terms of a fair hearing for schools? What school governing body with a tight budget is going to instruct lawyers to challenge a verdict?”

A spokesperson for Ofsted said: “Ensuring children are safe in school is far from ‘trivial’ – it is one of the most important elements of our inspections.”

She said a school would be graded inadequate for safeguarding reasons only for “serious concerns” such as failure to complete background checks on staff or not having a robust system to spot signs of abuse.

She added: “We are unable to comment on unsubstantiated allegations from anonymous sources, but we would not tolerate poor behaviour from inspectors.”

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