At 2:15am on Christmas morning last year, Ruth Perry woke and wrote down her thoughts while her two teenage daughters and husband slept.
“I.N.A.D.E.Q.U.A.T.E keeps flashing behind my eyes.”
She had been head teacher at Caversham Primary School, in Reading, for 13 years – the school had always been judged as “outstanding”.
The previous month, inspectors had visited, and Ruth knew they were going to downgrade her school to the lowest rating, “inadequate”.
That Christmas, Ruth’s thoughts kept returning to a meeting she’d had on the first morning of the school inspection, when the lead inspector had raised concerns about record keeping and staff checks intended to keep children safe.
If Ofsted decided the school wasn’t safeguarding pupils effectively, it would automatically be deemed “inadequate” – no matter how good the education it provided. Ruth knew Caversham Primary would then be taken over by an academy trust, putting her job at risk.
After the meeting, Ruth’s colleagues say she was distraught and unable to speak coherently. From that moment on, her family say she became increasingly distressed.
“I’d never seen Ruth so deflated,” says Jon, her husband of 21 years. “She said she felt powerless.”
In the weeks after the inspection, Ruth wrote a series of notes, later found by her family, revealing the turmoil she was going through.
She was “devastated” and “heartbroken”.
“I do not believe any child has been harmed because I have been negligent in my duties,” she wrote.
Ruth Perry grew up in Caversham, a suburb of Reading. She had been a pupil at Caversham Primary School, together with her older sister, Julia.
Ruth began her career in east London, but moved back to Reading in 2009 when she was appointed deputy head of the school she’d attended as a child. A year later, she was promoted to head teacher.
Happily woven into the local community, the people who knew her say she was carefree, confident and passionate about everything she did.
Ruth’s husband Jon had also grown up in Caversham. In the week of the Ofsted inspection, the couple and their two daughters moved into what had once been Jon’s childhood house. Ruth and Jon had plans to renovate what they hoped would be their “forever home”.
The evening after the two-day Ofsted inspection, Julia Waters visited her sister. She found her dejected and pale. “I’m broken,” Ruth told Julia, and began to cry.
“I gave her a hug,” Julia says, “she just leant into me and cried. There was nothing I could do to comfort her – I’ve never seen her like that.”
The notes Ruth wrote in subsequent days show Ruth rehearsing breaking the news that the school has been rated “inadequate”.
“I write this to you as parents on the evening of 18th November 2022 to say how utterly broken I am by the Ofsted inspection.
“I have given my life to CPS [Caversham Primary School]. I have only ever wanted children to leave happy and confident on the next stage of their journey, and I have been devastated by the impact of how I have done a disservice to the community.”
Within days of her school being inspected, Ruth told her husband she was having “dark thoughts”. She feared house prices in the area would fall if the school was deemed inadequate and was terrified the local community would be angry.
Ruth told Jon their family would have to move away and confided in the school’s business manager that she had considered taking her own life.
She had no previous history of mental ill health, but by the following weekend, Jon had become so worried he drove his wife to a local psychiatric hospital. The couple were told Ruth would need to see her own doctor before she could be helped there and were sent home.
Five days after the inspection, when Ruth did see her GP, he was concerned about her suicidal thoughts and referred her to a mental health crisis team. Ruth was assessed over the phone but was discharged by 8 December 2022.
Ruth had googled what head teachers do after failed Ofsted inspections – she wrote that she had seen examples of suicide, forced removal, and “resignation in shame”.
Her notes describe how close she had come to killing herself and how she had talked herself “in and out of doing it”.
According to her sister-in-law, Anna Perry, Ruth was resilient and capable, until the fear of shame and humiliation began to eat away at her as she waited for Ofsted’s report to be published.
“This was going to be the end of her career and she didn’t know what she could do,” says Anna, who’d known Ruth since childhood.
“This is what she loved and I don’t think she could hold her head up – she was so distraught.”
Grappling with the thought of losing both her job and her standing in the community, Ruth’s notes suggest her mental health was becoming increasingly fragile as Christmas approached.
“Every space is filled with my feelings of wretchedness and desperation,” Ruth wrote. “I wake from restless sleep absolutely panic-stricken.”
Fifty-four days after the Ofsted inspection at Caversham Primary School, Ruth Perry took her life, on 8 January 2023.
On 21 March 2023, Ofsted published its inspection report, rating the school “inadequate”. It described Caversham Primary as welcoming and vibrant, with exemplary pupil behaviour and high expectations.
Ruth Perry’s name was on Ofsted’s report, with a footnote stating the leadership had since changed because of her death.
Nobody from Ofsted had spoken to, written to or visited her family – although the offer of a meeting would be made later.
Caversham Primary School was reinspected by Ofsted in June 2023. In the same month MPs launched an inquiry into school inspections in England, as a result of which some changes have already been made.
In July, Ofsted published its report judging Caversham Primary to be “good”.
An inquest into Ruth Perry’s death concluded on Thursday. Her GP, the school’s chair of governors and two deputy head teachers all told the coroner they believed the Ofsted inspection had contributed to her death.
The inquest heard no child at Caversham Primary had come to harm.
In conclusion, the coroner said the Ofsted inspection at Caversham Primary School had been done in a manner that “lacked fairness, respect and sensitivity”.
She added that Ruth Perry felt she could not talk to mental health professionals about the inspection and felt obliged to “bear this burden alone”.
Speaking on behalf of Ofsted, Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman apologised to Ruth Perry’s family for the distress she experienced as a result of their inspection.
She said: “It’s right that we inspect first and foremost in the interests of children, their parents and carers. But in the light of Mrs Perry’s sad death, it’s also vital that we do all we can to minimise stress and anxiety when we inspect.”
Anna, Ruth’s sister-in-law, says Ruth’s family are still trying to come to terms with the shock of what has happened.
“The future looks very different”, she says.
On Christmas Day 2022, Ruth Perry and her family had gathered to celebrate, going for a walk before sitting around the kitchen table together to try to help her see a way forward.
It would be the last time Julia saw her younger sister alive.
“Ruth didn’t want to spoil the children’s Christmas,” Julia says, “but she was haunted.”
Now, she says it’s important for Ruth’s daughters to be able to remember her as the devoted mother she was.
“She was just a lovely human being,” Julia says, “destroyed by an utterly inhumane system.”
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