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  • Writer's pictureKeven Bartle

It Needn't Be Lonely This Christmas

Perhaps the most poignant information to come out of last week’s inquest into the death of Ruth Perry was the fact that she was still thinking about the judgment in the early hours of Christmas morning.  She wrote at the time:

“I.N.A.D.E.Q.U.A.T.E keeps flashing behind my eyes.”

What strikes me as incredibly profound is that those thoughts of that Christmas morning, the replaying of the final grading for the school in her head, occurred six weeks after the inspection process.  She managed to continue with these thoughts for another two weeks before taking her life on 8th January 2023, trapped in a hell about which she could not communicate at the time of year when all media channels point remorselessly to feelings of joy, hope and togetherness.

Other comments that came to Ruth Perry’s mind in these two months of despair were that “the pain inside was intolerable” and that she was “amazed” that more headteachers did not kill themselves because of inspection.  She would wake from “restless sleep absolutely panic-stricken” with the feeling of having somehow let down her school community: the staff, the students and their families. 

When the death of Ruth Perry broke in March of this year, I was heading into the final months of my nine-year period as a headteacher.  My immediate thoughts upon reading about what she had been through, and her decision, was that I could completely understand it.  Although I have been fortunate never to have experienced suicidal ideation, as headteacher of a school that – in 2019 – was downgraded from ‘outstanding’ to ‘requires improvement’, I was not surprised that someone in a similar, but worse, position had decided they could not bear to live with the feelings it generated. 

The coverage of the inquest last week brought my thoughts back to the horrible time post-inspection and pre-publication of the report.  I wish I could somehow find the words to explain this period in a way that would help people to ‘get’ it (to both know and feel it), but I don’t think that it is possible.  I felt cut adrift from everyone, even the people who had experienced the process with me in school and from the beautifully well-meaning and supportive comments of my nearest and dearest. 

The experience is paradoxical in the extreme.  I was left holding, at the same time, thoughts of shame and of belligerence, of being responsible and of being a victim of circumstance, of wanting to accept and move on from the judgment as well as defend and replay it, of feeling like I was the one letting everyone down and of having been let down by others, of mourning the past whilst taking up the opportunities for a better future, of wanting to hide away and of wanting to be seen for the sake of others.  All of which happened under the embargo process, which is itself paradoxical, wanting to tell the world but also to hang onto the period where the online report still says ‘outstanding’.

Much attention has been paid to the nature of the inspection regime generally and to the specific inspection process that Ruth Perry experienced on 15th and 16th November 2023.  This is absolutely as it should be, and my one wish is that the death of Ruth Perry will come to mean something for the future of school inspection that makes it less traumatic for all of those who experience it at its harshest.  There is a lot of anger around and I hope that it gives way to some clear-sighted wisdom leading to agreement about how to do things better.  That would be a fitting memorial.

But, in the expectation that profound and thoughtful change will take some time to enact, my immediate hope is that headteachers realise that they do not have to be alone when making sense of difficult challenges, be they from the inspection system or from the myriad of pressures that they face daily.  As headteacher, your role is a strange one.  You are more than an employee in some respects and yet less than an employee in others.  You proudly represent and embody the hopes and fears of a tight-knit community: these run through you like you are a stick of rock.  When things are going well, there is nothing more uplifting.  But when things are going badly, or when the challenges overwhelm you, the stick of rock can break.  Without a line manager – Chairs of Governors, however great, are not the same – and without the ability to reveal all your anxieties to anyone in your organisation, however trusted, you carry these thoughts and feelings alone.  And you carry them home, although you try to spare your family from the darkest of them.

These are the reasons why I am no longer a headteacher but also the reasons why I have established, to support and sustain school leaders – and particularly headteachers – so that they can keep on going, in their work and in their lives.  Others, such as Headrest and Education Support, are also offering services with the same ends in mind. 

I spent last Christmas Day alone, feeling very sorry for myself because an untimely bout of Covid prevented me from travelling to spend the holiday with my family.  This Christmas Day, whatever else happens, I will be thinking of Ruth Perry and her family and will be reflecting on how blessed I am and have been.  I will also be thinking of all school leaders who are experiencing loneliness and isolation, wishing them well and hoping they find their way to support.  If you have read to the end, and any of this post has resonated with you, do get in touch with someone who can provide an external, independent, experienced and qualified ear.  Perhaps most importantly of all, get in touch before you think that you need that ear.

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