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The government must ensure sex education in England does not become embroiled in the culture wars and “needlessly politicised”, dozens of leading organisations have warned.
A letter, signed by more than 50 organisations, urged the education secretary Gillian Keegan to ensure the forthcoming review of the statutory guidance on Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) confronts the “cultural norms” which prop up an “epidemic” of gender-based violence.
It comes after Tory backbencher MP Miriam Cates recently faced fierce criticism for claiming students in the UK were receiving RSHE that is “age inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate”.
Ms Cates, MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, told the Commons: “Graphic lessons on oral sex, how to choke your partner safely and 72 genders. This is what passes for relationships and sex education in British schools.
“Children are being subjected to lessons that are age inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate, often using resources from unregulated organisations that are actively campaigning to undermine parents.”
The PM Rishi Sunak responded by requesting the Department for Education to “ensure schools are not teaching inappropriate or contested content” in Relationships and Sex Education, stating he would bring forward a review of how this subject area is taught in schools. This will only be conducted in state schools in England.
But Andrea Simon, director of End Violence Against Women and Girls, who signed the letter, told The Independent: “The concerns Cates has raised have been disputed by the organisations which she was basing her claims on.
“Content that covers things such as choking and anal sex is not provided to children in UK schools. It is very concerning to hear this regressive backlash and then to learn it wasn’t grounded in the reality of what is happening in UK schools.
“Because sex education is so important, it should transcend being needlessly politicised. It is vital children and young people receive healthy sex and relationships education. In the absence of this, we run the risk of them turning to porn to fill in the gaps.”
The letter to the cabinet minister states schools are an “absolutely critical site for the protection of girls” and they provide the “best opportunity to challenge attitudes which condone abuse, and transform the long-term likelihood of abuse in adult relationships”.
Signatories include leading domestic abuse charities, Women’s Aid and Refuge, prominent gender equality charity, Fawcett Society, Humanists UK, and Rape Crisis England & Wales.
The letter states: “In light of recent headlines – which have the potential to incite opposition to much needed RSHE delivery in schools, we are seeking assurances that the upcoming review will not be unnecessarily politicised, and will be focused on what children and young people need to live happy and healthy lives, and the urgent need to do more to tackle violence against women and girls and the rising influence of online misogyny in schools.”
Campaigners concerns come after teachers have raised fears increasing numbers of boys are being influenced by Andrew Tate – a misogynistic influencer who has 4.5 million Twitter followers.
Mr Tate is a former kickboxing world champion-turned-influencer who has been banned from a number of social media platforms for hate speech and voicing misogynistic views.
The Independent previously reported on research by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) which unearthed 47 videos of Mr Tate pushing what it describes as “extreme misogyny”.
The letter states: “The specialist violence against women and girls sector – with a long history of delivering evidence-based and trauma-informed interventions with children and young people – must have a critical role in delivering RSHE if the government seeks to fulfil its commitment to tackling violence against women and girls.”
While signatories also draw attention to a recent Sex Education Forum poll that discovered the the issues which children and young people thought hadn’t been touched on enough, or at all, included porn, power imbalances in relationships, cultural and faith-based viewpoints, LGBT+ issues, men’s behaviour to women, among other topics.
A representative for the Department of Education has been contacted for comment.
Former Ofsted inspector Paul Garvey said the handling of inspections had become toxic in the past five years and that without significant reform, there could be similar tragedies.
He called for Ofsted to be scrapped.
The Reading Primary Heads Association and the Reading Secondary and College Leaders called for the four headline grades that Ofsted awards schools to be removed.
Ms Spielman acknowledged the debate about reforming inspections to remove grades was legitimate but defended the system, saying grades gave parents “a simple and accessible summary of a school’s strengths and weaknesses”.
“They are also now used to guide government decisions about when to intervene in struggling schools. Any changes to the current system would have to meet the needs both of parents and of government,” she said.
Describing Ms Perry’s death as a tragedy, Ms Spielman said she was deeply sorry for the loss suffered by her family, friends and the school community.
She said the news had been “met with great sadness at Ofsted” and acknowledged that inspections “can be challenging”. Inspectors, who are all former or serving school leaders, aim to carry them out with “sensitivity as well as professionalism”, she said.
Ms Perry, who was headteacher at Caversham Primary School, killed herself in January while waiting for an Ofsted report that downgraded her school to the lowest possible rating, her family said.
Ms Spielman said: “The sad news about Ruth has led to an understandable outpouring of grief and anger from many people in education. There have been suggestions about refusing to co-operate with inspections, and union calls to halt them entirely.
“I don’t believe that stopping or preventing inspections would be in children’s best interests. Our aim is to raise standards so that all children get a great education. It is an aim we share with every teacher in every school.”
Rebecca Leek, executive director of Suffolk Primary Headteachers’ Association, disagreed with Ms Spielman’s claims that inspectors always aim to carry work out with sensitivity and professionalism.
She said: “The experiences of school leaders are to the contrary.”
The National Association of Head Teachers union said the decision not to put inspections on hold had been “a terrible mistake” that served to “reinforce the view that Ofsted is tin-eared and shows scant regard for the wellbeing of school leaders”.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary, said: “We are not against inspection per se, we simply believe that a fairer, more humane approach is possible. We also believe parents would support a new approach.”
Niamh Sweeney, of the National Education Union, said: “What is not in children’s best interests is head teacher burnout and beloved class teachers leaving. What is not in children’s interests is ploughing on with a pretence that this is the only approach to inspecting schools.”
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Schools are removing logos and references to Ofsted ratings from their websites as a mark of solidarity with headteacher Ruth Perry, who took her own life while waiting for a negative inspection report.
Headteachers are planning to stage protests – including wearing black clothing and armbands and displaying photographs of Ms Perry around the school – when Ofsted inspections take place.
Pressure is mounting on the watchdog amid calls from school leaders and unions for urgent reform of the inspection system following the death of Ms Perry in January.
The headteacher at Caversham Primary School in Reading killed herself in January while waiting for an Ofsted report which downgraded her school to the lowest possible rating, her family said.
In a letter to Ofsted on Wednesday, school and college leaders across Reading said they wanted the “terrible tragedy to mark a turning point” in the way school inspections are carried out by the watchdog.
The Reading Primary Heads Association and the Reading Secondary and College Leaders are calling for an urgent review of school inspections and for the four headline grades that Ofsted awards schools to be removed.
Lisa Telling, executive headteacher of Katesgrove Primary School and Southcote Primary School in Reading, is removing references to Ofsted from her schools’ websites, as well as advertising, in solidarity with Ms Perry.
Ms Telling said many school leaders across Reading were planning to remove positive quotes from Ofsted reports from their websites.
Emmer Green Primary School in Reading, which has an “outstanding” rating from Ofsted, has removed the watchdog’s logo from its website, letterhead and communications in solidarity with the late headteacher.
Ms Telling said her teachers will be invited to wear black clothing or black armbands and photographs will be displayed of Ms Perry across the school during future Ofsted inspections.
“It’s really important to us to remember her and for her death not to be in vain,” she added.
“We have no qualms about being accountable as school leaders but it cannot be in this punitive way that it’s done on a one-word judgment which can destroy lives and destroy careers.”
In the Ofsted report, Caversham Primary School was rated as “inadequate.” It found the school to be “good” in every category apart from leadership and management, where it was judged as “inadequate”.
The watchdog was criticised for a part of the report that referenced Ms Perry’s passing, stating the school underwent a “change of leadership” following her death. It appears that reference has now been removed from Ofsted’s report.
Professor Julia Waters, Ms Perry’s sister, said the watchdog’s report was “deeply harmful” in its “implied focus on one individual”.
The Suffolk Primary Headteachers’ Association (SPHA), which held a meeting with school leaders across the county on Tuesday, has said it will support schools “considering peaceful and lawful protest” when an inspection occurs.
It comes after teachers at John Rankin School in Newbury, Berkshire – where the headteacher had planned to refuse inspectors entry but then reversed her decision – wore black armbands during an inspection earlier this week.
On Wednesday, Reading Borough Council called on the watchdog to pause inspections while a review is carried out into the system.
Three unions representing teachers and headteachers – including the National Education Union (NEU) – have urged Ofsted to pause inspections this week.
The NEU will hand in a petition, signed by more than 45,000 people, to the Department for Education on Thursday calling on Ofsted to be replaced with an accountability system which is “supportive, effective and fair”.
Niamh Sweeney, deputy general secretary of the NEU, said the debate this week highlighted the lack of support for Ofsted’s current rating system.
“There is also a growing concern among leaders that schools are being downgraded for spurious reasons which are not objective or reasonable grounds,” Ms Sweeney said.
“It’s inescapable that, if we carry on as we are, we jeopardise the health of school leaders and won’t keep enough leaders. There are other, better approaches to inspection and it is time for change.”
Last month, when more than 200,000 students who had been victims of misconduct by their colleges began getting the news that their federal student loans were cancelled, Amanda Luciano felt a sense of satisfaction — and a pang of despair.
The students getting the good news had been just like her — struggling with student debt because a for-profit college had defrauded them — with one difference, a difference that hadn’t seemed important until recently. When she needed money to start college, she was advised to borrow from a private lender instead of the federal government and, because of that, she’s stuck with $81,000 debt.
“I’m frustrated, because, what can I do? I’d be in the same position as these other people had my loans been federal, period,” said Luciano, who is now 37. “Of course, I’m so happy for these people, but it’s just crazy that no one’s being held accountable for us private [loan] people.”
A federal judge ruled last fall, in Sweet v. Cardona, that former students from more than 150 colleges (most of them for-profit institutions) who had filed what’s known as a borrower defense to repayment claim were entitled to automatic loan cancellation, such was the magnitude of those colleges’ misconduct. But when the final legal hurdle was cleared in February, erasing their debt, Luciano — and tens of thousands of private-loan borrowers like her — was left out.
The settlement came after a class-action lawsuit filed in 2018 that alleged the government had unfairly delayed granting relief to students who had been defrauded by their colleges. Although consumer protections apply to private lenders as well as the government, the legal mechanism that could trigger relief for private education-loan borrowers is different from the one used in the Sweet case, which sought relief only for students who had government loans.
Back in 2006, when Luciano was researching degrees that would lead to a good job in the fashion industry, she came across the website of the now-shuttered International Academy of Design and Technology, or IADT. The college promoted its national accreditation and promised a pathway to a lucrative career in design and merchandising, she said. Visiting the Chicago campus, Luciano met with a financial aid counselor to help her figure out how to pay for college. The counselor even got a representative from the private lender Sallie Mae on speakerphone to explain how easy it would be to pay off her loans after she graduated.
Nineteen years old and the first in her family to go to college, Luciano asked her grandfather to co-sign the loan and took the plunge. The degree proved worthless.
She borrowed $51,000; over the last 15 years she says she has paid back a total of $41,000. But because of the interest, her balance today stands at $81,000. Her current monthly payments of $500 only cover the interest, she says.
“These private loan borrowers are coming out of the exact same circumstances and the exact same context,” said Eileen Connor, director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending who represented the former students who started getting relief last month. “They have similar rights to cancellation. There’s no rationale to explain why one loan would be enforceable and another is not.”
Even though the private student loan market is much smaller than the federal one, it’s still very large — more than $127 billion is owed by private student loan borrowers, and delinquencies have been rising over the past two years.
Do you have a private student loan?
After Luciano graduated from high school, she initially enrolled at nearby Joliet Junior College, unsure exactly what she wanted to do but interested in teaching. She kept her job at her local Big Lots, where she had worked during high school. Living at home, she scheduled her classes for the morning and often worked a 1-9 p.m. shift. She was able to earn enough to pay the Joliet tuition out of pocket.
During her third semester, she took a class on fashion merchandising and fell in love with it. She felt like she had found her calling, she said, but there weren’t many classes in fashion at Joliet. That’s when she went online to see whether it was possible to get a degree in fashion and found IADT promising exactly that — just a train ride away.
She visited the school and an admissions representative repeated what the website had promised: Getting a degree from IADT would lead to a career as a buyer, a fashion designer or a virtual merchandizer, depending on which track she chose.
“They literally listed what would be available to us. They made it seem like, get this degree and here are the jobs you can have,” Luciano said. “So of course, I was like, this sounds perfect.”
Luciano says the financial aid officer at IADT never mentioned the option of federal loans and told her that a private loan was her best option since it would also give her money for living expenses.
“My thinking was, this is kind of what you needed to do — get a college degree to get a well-paying job,” she said.
Luciano’s interest rate is now over 9 percent and is not fixed, so it has risen and fallen over the years. The current interest rate on federal student loans is 5 percent, and once a student borrows, it doesn’t change over time.
After Luciano graduated from IADT in 2008, she searched for jobs in the fashion industry for several years.
IADT “promised networking opportunities, high paying jobs within our industry, even internship opportunities that lead to positions within the industry,” she recalled.
She contacted the school’s career services office at least once a week, she said, but they only sent her job listings easily found on any job website.
“I never thought to question the school in why this was all happening,” she said. “I just thought I needed to try harder, keep searching.”
She looked for jobs at stores with nearby corporate headquarters, constantly checking their websites to see if they were hiring, but positions were few and far between. She had one interview at the retail giant Claire’s for a buying position, but they were looking for someone with more experience.
In three years of searching, she never landed anything more than a $13-an-hour job at the retail store Kohl’s as an apparel supervisor, which did not require a degree.
“That was all I could find on the job boards,” she said. “I kept reaching back out to the school, but there was nothing. I finally realized this degree was worth absolutely nothing.”
She moved back home with her mom and eventually decided to cut her losses. In 2011, she enrolled at the College of DuPage — a nearby community college — and became certified to teach preschool. She took out federal student loans to pay for the program.
“It was just so demoralizing,” she said. “And then to find out that this school — my school — was part of this predatory scam. After hearing that, I just can’t believe I’m still paying for it.”
In 2012, when Luciano started teaching preschool, the median annual salary for IADT graduates in Chicago was just $25,000 ten years after graduating, and more than half of students with federal loans were either delinquent or in default five years after starting repayment. In 2015, eight out of ten of the college’s bachelor’s degree programs failed the government’s “gainful employment” test — a measurement that looks at whether students, on average, are earning enough to repay their loans. In 2017, the year the college closed, 75 percent of its students with federal loans were delinquent or in default.
Those borrowers — the ones with federal loans — are getting relief from the Sweet settlement, and while the wait has been long, they got a break during the pandemic. They haven’t had to make payments since March 2020, and no interest has been added since then. Luciano, whose private loans are held by Navient, was allowed an 18-month pause, but her interest kept building up during that time. The company offers forbearances for economic hardships, but Luciano used up what was available when her son, now 6 years old, was born prematurely and she couldn’t work full-time.
A Navient representative declined to comment on Luciano’s situation, citing privacy concerns, and said that individuals with private loans who are facing repayment challenges should contact their servicers to inquire about available options.
Connor, of the Project on Predatory Student Lending, says she is looking into ways to help students like Luciano.
Meanwhile, Luciano, now a mom of two, has watched her fellow students from IATD posting images on Facebook of the emails they received alerting them to full loan cancellation.
“I’m so regretful, every day,” she said. “I just keep paying, but I’ll never be rid of it.”
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Ms Perry, who was head at Caversham Primary School in Reading, killed herself in January while waiting for an Ofsted report which gave her school the lowest possible rating, her family said.
The inspection report found the school to be good in every category apart from leadership and management, where it was judged to be inadequate.
Julia Waters, the sister of Ms Perry, said the inspection destroyed 32 years of her vocation and “preyed on her mind until she couldn’t take it any more”.
As a result, teachers have launched a petition calling for an inquiry into the inspection of Caversham Primary School has more than 120,000 signatures. In addition, one teacher said she would not allow entry to Ofsted inspectors, before reversing the decision on Tuesday morning.
Three unions representing teachers and school leaders have urged Ofsted to pause inspections this week in light of the news about Ms Perry.
Here we take a look at how the outrage at Ofsted begin and what will happen next:
She told BBC South that inspectors said a boy doing a flossing dance move, from the video game Fortnite, was evidence of the sexuation of children at the school.
Ms Waters said in the days before her sister died she was anxious about the “countdown” to the inspection report.
“I remember her clearly one day saying ‘52 days and counting’, every day she had this weight on her shoulders hanging over her,” she said.
“I remember the very first day I saw her, rather than just speaking to her on the phone, a couple of days after the end of the Ofsted inspection, she came, she was an absolute shadow of her former self.”
Inspectors said school leaders did not have the “required knowledge to keep pupils safe from harm”, did not take “prompt and proper actions” and had not ensured safeguarding was “effective”.
Caversham Primary School said in a letter in response to the report: “The school, led by Ruth, responded immediately after the inspection visit, to take action to resolve the issues raised.
“Following the heart-breaking loss of Ruth, we have continued her work to ensure that the school is an effective, safe and happy place for children to learn and achieve.”
Matthew Purves, Ofsted’s regional director for the south east, said: “We were deeply saddened by Ruth Perry’s tragic death.
“Our thoughts remain with Ms Perry’s family, friends and everyone in the Caversham Primary School community.”
How did the outrage begin?
After news spread of the circumstances around Ruth Perry’s death, teachers and school unions took to social media to voice their concern with the watchdog’s handling of the case and inspections widely.
Suffolk Primary Headteacher’s Association wrote on Twitter: “As an association dedicated to supporting primary school headteachers, we have written a letter to @Ofstednews. We ask, are you a force for good?”
Teacher and National Education Union officer Daniel Kebede said: “My thoughts have been with the family of Ruth Perry this weekend. Ofsted is not fit for purpose. Its findings are unreliable and flawed. Suicide is nearly 2x the national average in primary teaching profession. I absolutely support Ruth’s sisters demands. Abolish Ofsted.”
Steve Chalke, the founder of the Oasis school, added that Ofsted is “Inadequate.”
“I know of many wonderful, dedicated, frontline teaching staff who have been traumatised by thoughtless inspections. It is time to revolutionise this broken and failing system,” he said.
A petition calling for an inquiry into the inspection of Caversham Primary School has more than 120,000 signatures.
Flora Cooper, executive headteacher of the John Rankin Schools, announced the plan to boycott the Ofsted inspection on Twitter on Monday and posted: “We have to do this! I’m taking the stand!”.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said it is “important” that people listen to what Ms Perry’s family have to say regarding their determination that “something like this should never happen again”.
What happens next?
Matt Rodda, a Labour MP for Reading East, said he had a meeting with the schools minister and has raised the case of Ms Perry with the regional director of Ofsted.
“I think it’s fair to say that there are local concerns about the way that the inspection was carried out,” Mr Rodda said.
“Also about the way that the Ofsted framework and other regulations affecting Ofsted effectively work, and the wider pressure on headteachers.”
Ofsted is yet to give a statement in response to the petition or calls from the education union to pause inspections.
Former Ofsted inspector Paul Garvey said without significant reform to the watchdog, there will be more illness, sadness, headteachers losing their jobs and possibly more cases like Ruth Perry.
Teachers at the John Rankin School were pictured wearing black armbands in solidarity with Ms Perry during the Ofsted inspection on Tuesday.
Flora Cooper, executive headteacher of the John Rankin Schools near Newbury, tweeted her decision after fellow head Ruth Perry, 53, who led Caversham Primary School in Reading, was found dead in January after suffering anxiety about an imminent Ofsted report, according to her family.
Tweeting on Monday, Ms Cooper wrote: “I’ve just had the call. I’ve refused entry. This is an interesting phone call. Doing this for everyone for our school staff everywhere!”
Crowds duly gathered at the gates of the Newbury school on Tuesday morning in solidarity with the gesture, only for a member of the board of governors to emerge and read a statement that said: “The Ofsted inspection is now going to go ahead and the school will fully engage in the process.”
While that standoff appears to have been resolved through negotiation, what happens if a school does elect to boycott Ofsted?
Responding to the present controversy, a Department for Education spokesperson said: “It is a legal requirement for schools and nurseries to be inspected by Ofsted and they have a legal duty to carry out those inspections.
“Inspections are hugely important as they hold schools to account for their educational standards and parents greatly rely on the ratings to give them confidence in choosing the right school for their child.
“We offer our deep condolences to the family and friends of Ruth Perry following her tragic death and are continuing to provide support to Caversham Primary School at this difficult time.”
Section 5 of the Education Act 2005 places a duty on the chief inspector of schools “to inspect under this section every school in England to which this section applies, at such intervals as may be prescribed” and “when the inspection has been completed, to make a report of the inspection in writing”.
Ofsted itself explains that its purpose in reviewing and reporting on school standards is “to provide information to parents, to promote improvement and to hold schools to account for the public money they receive”.
It adds: “School inspections are required by law. We provide an independent assessment of the quality and standards of education in schools, and check whether pupils are achieving as much as they can.”
The government states that the timing of an Ofsted inspection “depends on the findings of its previous inspection”, with schools previously graded “good” or “outstanding” not likely to be reviewed again for another four years but those deemed to be performing less well likely to be given more frequent attention.
An institution can request an inspection be deferred or cancelled but only in “exceptional circumstances”, the government states, adding: “If pupils are receiving education in the school, an inspection will usually go ahead.”
It outlines a number of scenarios in which a planned inspection might not go ahead on the agreed dates but stresses that its list is “not exhaustive”.
Examples given include a senior management figure within the school being made the subject of an ongoing police investigation, the institution having experienced “a recent major incident” such as the death of a pupil or staff member, the school being due to merge or move or having suffered a recent security incident, any of which could potentially be considered grounds for postponement.
Ofsted says it “puts the interest of children and learners first”, hence only conceding not to carry out an inspection in particular circumstances, citing ongoing building work or refurbishment as a reason it would not accept to suspend a school visit.
Section 10 of the aforementioned Education Act grants inspectors a “right of entry to the premises of the school” and makes it an offence to “intentionally obstruct” an inspector from carrying out a review.
“Anybody found guilty of this offence is liable to a fine up to a maximum of £2,500,” explains Edapt, a provider of legal advice and support to the education sector.
“As this is a criminal breach of the law rather than a civil breach, it could become part of a criminal record.”
A headteacher found to have committed such an offence could be in breach of their employment contract, Edapt warns, adding: “It is also possible that such conduct could be deemed to constitute ‘gross misconduct’ which could lead to suspension or dismissal. The fact that the act is also a criminal offence adds weight to the likelihood of this meeting a threshold for gross misconduct.”
An inquest has yet to be held into Ms Perry’s death but her sister, Professor Julia Waters, told BBC South Today that said her sibling had experienced the “worst day of her life” when inspectors reviewed her school in November, saying that the episode had “destroyed” her and “preyed on her mind until she couldn’t take it any more”.
The report found Caversham Primary to be “good” in every category apart from leadership and management, where it was judged to be “inadequate”.
In a statement on behalf of her family, Professor Waters has said: “In our opinion, the findings of Ofsted were disproportionate, unfair and, as has tragically been proven, deeply harmful in their (implied) focus on one individual.
“We are in no doubt that Ruth’s death was a direct result of the pressure put on her by the process and outcome of an Ofsted inspection at her school.”
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said it was “the height of insensitivity” for inspections to go ahead as usual while Geoff Barton, her counterpart at the ASCL, said: “Many school and college leaders and their staff find inspections and Ofsted judgments very traumatic, and this is often damaging to their wellbeing.
“This case has brought matters to a head and something has to change. We will be discussing this with Ofsted as a matter of urgency.”