School inspectors have accused their employer, Ofsted, of misleading the court during last week’s inquest into the death of headteacher Ruth Perry, the Observer can reveal.

Over the past week the inquest has heard from Perry’s colleagues that she “looked extremely distressed and upset” and was unable to speak coherently only a few hours into the inspection. The chair of governors and two deputy headteachers at her primary school in Reading have told the coroner that there was a “direct link” between the inspection and Perry’s subsequent mental deterioration and death earlier this year.

A key element of Ofsted’s evidence has been the claim that reducing teacher stress is a “core value” on which inspectors were trained.

Asked on the first day of the inquest whether there was specific training in place for inspectors at the time of Perry’s inspection last November about what to do if they saw a teacher in distress, Chris Russell, Ofsted’s national director of education, told the court: “That is something that very much comes into our training.”

However, this weekend inspectors told the Observer they believe this was misleading. A secondary headteacher who resigned as an inspector earlier this year, speaking anonymously, said: “It is nonsense that inspectors received training on headteacher wellbeing or reducing stress. That didn’t happen.”

The Observer has spoken to five inspectors who were working for Ofsted when Perry’s primary school in Reading was inspected, all of whom said they received no training on detecting, managing or reducing stress or distress. A senior Ofsted insider also confirmed that no training was given on these issues at that time.

When asked by the Observer, Ofsted did not confirm or deny misleading about training. It said, however, that the coroner has now directed them to provide written evidence of training materials which they agreed to do.

The secondary headteacher claimed that while he was still an inspector his own school was inspected by a “brutal” lead inspector who “absolutely destroyed” good teaching staff, and left him feeling panic and despair about his own future.

He said one subject head at his school had a “terrifying” hour and a half interview. “The inspector didn’t notice she was physically shaking for the entire 90 minutes,” he claimed.

He described the pressure Ofsted places on heads as “absolutely awful”. “In my experience Ofsted is not preparing inspection teams for having difficult conversations with some humanity,” he added.

Julie Price-Grimshaw, a former inspector who now helps schools prepare for inspections, said: “There is no training. It is not a core value of Ofsted’s to try to reduce stress.”

Price-Grimshaw said she talked to colleagues this week, some of whom are still serving as inspectors and others who left recently. “I asked them if there was any training about empathy or reducing stress at the time of Ruth’s inspection and they all said no. People even checked back in their training materials. There was nothing.”

Former Ofsted inspector Julie Price-Grimshaw.
Former Ofsted inspector Julie Price-Grimshaw has disputed the watchdog’s claims about providing training in how to reduce teacher stress. Photograph: Ewen Weatherspoon/The Observer

A current inspector told the Observer he had spoken to a senior Ofsted insider last week who agreed there was no training on stress at the time of Perry’s inspection. “Neither of us can recall any training,” he said. “In Ofsted’s conference this September there was a reference to having a bedside manner but this wasn’t explored any further.”

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The headteacher of a primary school in the north of England, who asked not to be named, said of her recent traumatic inspection: “To say my inspector walked in with a ‘god complex’ would be an understatement. He had no interest in mental health and wellbeing.”

She said she cried during one meeting when the inspector started using the word “inadequate” about her school, and she also claims that “he literally rolled his eyes at me but kept going”.

A newly qualified teacher on her staff cried uncontrollably after allegedly being grilled by the inspector, telling the head repeatedly that she had let the school down.

The head confronted the inspector about this but recalled: “He didn’t care. He just said she was right to be upset because she didn’t know what she was doing.”

Headrest, a charitable helpline for headteachers, said it found Ofsted was the single biggest cause of poor mental health in school leaders and the subject of most of the crisis calls they receive. Its founder, Andrew Morrish, a former inspector, said: “To be told by a stranger who has never been in your school before that it is failing is devastating. It feels incredibly personal. You can’t defend yourself.”

Dave McPartlin, headteacher of Flakefleet primary school in Fleetwood, Lancashire, said: “I see what Ofsted pressure is doing to my colleagues and I’ve felt what it is doing to my own mental health. Enough is enough.”

A spokesperson for Ofsted said: “We were deeply saddened by the death of Ruth Perry and our thoughts remain with her loved ones and the community at Caversham Primary School.”

They added Ofsted had listened to the public debate on inspections and announced “measures to improve aspects of the work” this summer.

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