Sister of Ruth Perry says she will need to be convinced of review’s independence

The sister of a headteacher who took her own life after an Ofsted inspection said she will “need to be convinced” of the independence of a review following her death after a former chief of the schools watchdog was appointed to lead it.

Dame Christine Gilbert was announced on Monday as the woman to head up the independent learning review in response to the Coroner’s Prevention of Future Deaths report from Ruth Perry’s inquest.

Ms Perry took her own life in January 2023, just months after an Ofsted report downgraded her Caversham Primary School in Reading from its highest rating to its lowest over safeguarding concerns.

The conclusion of her inquest in December 2023 was given as “suicide, contributed to by an Ofsted inspection carried out in November 2022”.

Ofsted said the review, which was first announced in January, will begin this month and a written report will be compiled by the end of the year.

But Dame Christine’s appointment has prompted concern among both Ms Perry’s family and education unions, given that she was chief inspector at Ofsted for five years.

Ms Perry’s sister, Professor Julia Waters, said the appointment “could feel a bit like Ofsted has set its own homework and has got an old friend to mark it”.

Ruth Perry took her own life after an Ofsted inspection of her school ( Andrew Matthews/PA)
Ruth Perry took her own life after an Ofsted inspection of her school (Andrew Matthews/PA)

She said: “Given that Dame Christine Gilbert is a former head of Ofsted, we and others will need to be convinced that she has the necessary independence of perspective that is required for the task.

“The review needs to be rigorous and explore Ofsted’s systems, practices and culture in depth if it is to learn the lessons required to lead to significant change. I hope we get that assurance, and I hope she can do what is needed.

“It could feel a bit like Ofsted has set its own homework and has got an old friend to mark it. I hope that isn’t the case.”

She said she is looking forward to meeting Dame Christine “and sharing my family’s experiences and concerns with her”, calling for a “truly independent and deep inquiry” to assure her family, teachers, parents and others “that Ofsted is serious about change”.

She said the published terms of reference for the review “seem rather limited and limiting” and added that she hopes Dame Christine “will consider interpreting the terms in a way that provides opportunity to properly review what Ofsted does and how it can improve”.

Former head of Ofsted Dame Christine Gilbert (PA Archive/PA)
Former head of Ofsted Dame Christine Gilbert (PA)

School leaders’ union the NAHT said the review must be independent and impartial, noting a concern that it is being led by a former Ofsted chief.

But the National Education Union (NEU) went a step further, saying the review “should be carried out by someone from outside Ofsted, rather than a former chief inspector, so that it has the trust of the profession, and we can all have faith in the process”.

Its general secretary Daniel Kebede said the review “will only take us forward if it is impartial and independent”.

Dame Christine, who was a teacher for 18 years, served as chief inspector at Ofsted from 2006 until 2011.

NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman, while calling for the concern around her appointment to be confronted “head-on”, described Dame Christine as being a “widely respected and knowledgeable figure in education” with the “insight and determination to carry out a comprehensive review”.

The review will not examine the inspection of Caversham Primary School or the judgments made, Ofsted said.

Dame Christine said she will take a “detailed and thorough” look at events from the end of the school inspection to the conclusion of the inquest, and will speak with Ms Perry’s family.

She said: “The death of Ruth Perry was a deeply sad and shocking event. Ofsted has accepted that it is vitally important for it to learn from this tragedy and has asked me to help them do that.

“I intend to take a very detailed and thorough look at all areas of Ofsted’s work – from the moment the Caversham inspection ended, through to the conclusion of the Coroner’s inquest.

“I will scrutinise the approach taken and advise on future actions and revisions needed to improve Ofsted’s policies and processes for dealing with any tragic incident.

“Importantly, I will hear first-hand from the family of Ruth Perry to gain a better understanding of the impact of Ofsted’s work. I would like to thank them in advance for agreeing to engage with my review.”

Current chief inspector of Ofsted, Sir Martyn Oliver, said he was grateful to Dame Christine for agreeing to lead the review, with her “wealth of experience in schools, in inspection, and in undertaking a range of reviews”.

Dame Christine has taken part in previous education reviews as well as Baroness Casey’s report into the Metropolitan Police last year.

Ofsted said she will have access to relevant internal records and be able to speak with any member of Ofsted staff.

Her final report will include any recommendations for changes to Ofsted’s internal policies and processes for responding to “tragic incidents”, the watchdog said, adding that it will respond to its recommendations as part of the wider response to the Big Listen.

The Big Listen public consultation, seeking views about Ofsted, was launched last month.

Tom Middlehurst, inspection specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), welcomed Dame Christine’s appointment, but said its concern remains “that neither the review nor the Big Listen tackle the key issue of single-phrase judgments – the very feature of the system which makes inspections so high stakes and drives stress and anxiety”.