One of the best

Once in a while, someone comes into your life, profoundly influences it, and then is gone. You forget, but the legacy remains. Just such a person was Carol Woodward. She was headteacher at Woodford Primary School, just a mile or so away from my home in Plymouth. I knew her both as a parent and in a professional capacity. I served as a governor at Woodford for several years, and later had some professional contact with her in my teacher educator role. She was a wonderful teacher, an inspirational leader, and she had my greatest respect.

All three of my children attended Woodford, but my youngest child, who was then in the process of being diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder, was the one who benefited from her care the most. His condition made him very difficult to manage in class, as he oscillated between sudden, volatile behaviour and social withdrawal. It was a difficult time for our family and also for his teachers, but Carol was incredibly supportive, making sure my son had all of the resources to ensure he received a quality education. Her care and attention, her sunny disposition and her decisive intervention were instrumental in ensuring that my son was educated to the highest standards. The children in his class were also incredibly supportive, which is a further testament to the high quality of the teaching at Woodford School.

Over time, my son has learnt to manage and surmount the challenges his autism presents, and now, aged 20, he is in his first year at Plymouth University, studying on a degree programme in computer graphics and games design. He's doing very well. As a family we can't thank Carol enough for the hard work, dedicated care and superb encouragement she gave us all during my son's years at her school. We would love her to know that he is now studying at university, and that her efforts from all that time ago have paid off. We would love her to feel proud of what she achieved with him. But she will never hear it. Sadly, she will never know, because Carol took her own life at the end of the last school term.

The heartbreaking tributes from children currently at the school, and those from her family show just how much she was loved, and the high esteem in which she was held. Tragically, Carol's life came to an end when she could no longer face the pressure and the ignominy of a poor OFSTED report. Her health and mental well being declined rapidly following the government school inspection. It had been conducted while the school was experiencing disruption from building works. The report said the school was inadequate, because communication with parents was 'not always effective', and some bullying incidents had not been recorded. These are questionable criticisms of a school that has enjoyed an exemplary track record for decades. Did the school deserve such a damning report on the basis of these small failures?

It's impossible to say what other pressures there were in Carol's life, and what finally caused her to decide to take her own life. But for those who knew her, and knew the pride with which she led her school, and looked after the children in her care, it is clear. The OFSTED visit would have caused a tremendous amount of unneeded pressure on everyone, and the trauma of receiving a report that showed the school in a bad light would have been a major contributory factor to her death.

It can only be speculated upon what went through the minds of the inspectors of Woodford School, when they wrote their report. Some of my colleagues are currently school inspectors, or have been in the past, so I am aware of the pressures they themselves face from above. OFSTED's leadership is not famed for its friendliness. Established as the government's education watchdog, many believe that OFSTED has evolved into an attack dog, coached to act aggressively. Regardless of the hype and media surrounding OFSTED, we need a reality check. Schools have improved tremendously over the last few years, and many are now asking whether OFSTED is still necessary. This simply adds further fuel to the fire.

Life is precious, and the lives of teachers are fraught with challenges and pressures. You don't need to look too far to find accounts of teachers suffering from insomnia, anxiety, depression, alcoholism and stories of the culture of fear in schools. Caring for the mental health of teachers is an issue that is not addressed sufficiently in our society. How many teachers entertain suicidal thoughts because of the extreme pressures brought on by a school inspection? Most educators would agree that the additional pressures created by a school inspection do nothing to improve the quality of teaching. In this case, it seems a school inspection cost the life of an excellent teacher.

Carol Woodward was one of the best, sadly taken before her time. In time, the OFSTED report will be forgotten and the school will move on. In her time, thousands of children have benefited from Carol Woodward's excellent teaching and leadership. That will be her legacy. May she rest in peace.

Related items:
Head Teacher suicide verdict
Head's suicide raises questions about Ofsted inspection

Photo: Evening Herald

Creative Commons License
One of the best by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Lenandlar said…
Thanks for sharing Steve and sad to hear about Carol. The world needs many Carols to care for the little ones who struggle with their challenges.
David Hopkins said…
FFS ... when we policy and government start supporting schools and teachers instead of their petty testing and finding the most minute or ridiculous thing to criticise and damn? My wife spent 15 years teaching in KS1 an dis taking a career break while our kids are young, and is hating the thought of going back to the petty bureaucracy, negativity, form filling, and lack of trust teachers have to face from those people and organisations are supposed to be protecting and supporting them.

Such a sad waste. My thoughts are with Carol's family and friends, as well as all teachers who have to handle the pressure of putting policy before the trust we parents put in them. This has to stop ... before it gets any worse. Please?
Steve Wheeler said…
It's only when you look back at the legacy of a good teacher, and see the children they taught - your children - blossoming into adults, that you value teachers and appreciate the struggles they must have gone through to educate. It's doubly so, when your child has a disability.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks David. Michael Willshaw has gone on record saying that OFSTED visits are for the parents and children, not for the teachers. Something is clearly wrong here - shouldn't we be supporting the very people who are the intellectual capital of what we call education?
mihaela tilinca said…
May she rest in peace and be remembered for all she gave the others! I am not close to Plymouth or Woodford, but I very well understand your sadness and feel the drama - I have been working with teachers or teachers-to-be all my life. Yes, we, teachers work for for people...and yet this tragedy confirms, as all the stories and worries of my students, mentees or trainee do, that we are isolated and lonely. Teachers are very self conscious, they set their standards high, they let themselves open to every child's emotions and problems. These leave marks...scars sometimes. What you are telling us here, we should never colleagues, parents, students, trainers, mentors or tell the teachers in our lives, clearly and as often as we can, that we see them and that we feel the results of their efforts in our lives.
Michelle Selinger said…
Beautifully written Steve. Something has to change. I can only pray Carol 's death will not be in vain and will cause a rethink on the way in which Ofsted measures and reports on schools. We can't afford to lose precious teachers like Carol.
Ben Winter said…
This is a terrible reflection of the education world we inhabit. We must look after those around us and know that OFSTED too, will pass. The memory and example of pressured or unpressured (yeh, right) teachers and headteachers will endure. RIP.
Steve, I had a very similar story of child on the autistic spectrum, nurtured by the whole school under an exemplary head. By pulling together we discovered the gains to be made by every child through supported inclusion. My story ends with the same child making a huge contribution to society. Then, later, there is a similar experience of OFSTED judgement - in my case the head left the profession, despite being highly rated by all who worked with him and knew him. How many other professionals have been through this - has anyone done the research?
Steve Wheeler said…
Seems to be a recurring theme in education lately Richard. You may have seen the link I added at the foot of the post about another head teacher who took her own life because of fears of an impending Ofsted report. I know of no research in this area, but it is long overdue.
Anonymous said…
Something needs to be done. Im a TA and see and feel the pressures teaching brings. This cant be good for our students.
Anonymous said…
Steve, u and I spoke about Carol at my teacher training interview in early July this year. Itv was clear then and continues to be so, how high in regard you held Carol. I too have a great regard for a great and influential lady who I feel honoured to have known. Carol was so supportive to me as I started out on my career in schools and teaching. She gave me so many opportunities and played a role I will never forget in the foundations of my career. Thanks for your tribute and views, and I support you in both.
Anonymous said…
Well said. My son is currently a student at the school and it was a Godsend to be able to call Mrs Woodward, have an honest conversation and know she KNEW him.
He's had a few emotional issues while in her care and her support was second to none. It didn't mean he got away with the odd poor choice but she gave him the most amazing foundation in personal growth. He misses her deeply, which is a shame in his final year.
His response to the situation "Mrs Woodward believed in me and now I need to prove her right and be the best I can be, that would make her proud wouldn't it!?"
You may be gone but your legacy lives on RIP
Anonymous said…
So sorry to hear about this lady. Ofsted and goverments have a lot to answer for. Children are not robots, they need the time to develop in their own time.Teachers are put under so much pressure to get TARGETS! they no longer have the time to talk, to get to know the individual child. Sadly we will hear similar stories in the following years. TRUST TEACHERS
Julian said…
What a tragedy. As a parent of 2 children at the school, and part of the wider professional network in Plymouth I just didn't recognise Woodford in the ofsted report. Neither did any of the parents that packed out the ks2 hall during a parents meeting about this in September, where it transpires that being marked down even just a single area can now have your school's rating drastically downgraded and the wheels of academisation set in motion. The (presumably!) successful school that Woodford has been paired up with for academisation has, unlike all the other local primaries, not experienced an inspection for 7 years, and has a headteacher who himself is an ofsted inspector.

As a parent, a few days into the summer holiday and well before it came to light how Mrs Woodward had died or what the outcome of the inspection was going to be, I formally complained to ofsted about the timing, disruption and sheer irrelevance of much of what was inspected.
What is not reported in the news is that the inspection also took place in "Healthy Week". This features a timetable of as much sport and health-focused learning as possible. It is a week looked forward to by the children and parents, and features year groups being mixed up according to choices of various activities and also many off-site trips. As parents who have happily helped out in this week previously, our assistance and that of other parents was urgently sought to help at the last moment, as the requirements of the inspectors to have specific teaching staff on site were making it difficult or impossible to manage some of the off-site activities. (In his response to me the lead inspector denies that this was an issue, and that the week was in no way disrupted or affected by the decision to push ahead with the inspection once it was established that this was by no means a typical week in school.)

You simply could not pick a week in the whole academic year that is any less representative of the teaching or structure at this school. In answer to my concerns the lead inspector found no issue with what teaching or interaction they were able to observe, or the disruption to the carefully planned week that an overnight-notice inspection caused.

As an additional general comment, the actual process of complaning to Ofsted is (in comparison to complaints to other public-funded agencies) poor and lacks feedback or acknowledgement: it's very easy of you wish to raise a concern about a school *to* ofsted as it should be. However should you try to complain about an inspector or inspection the online process is long-winded and lacks any facility for saving your comments, viewing them at a later date, or simply having a copy of your complaint emailed back to you for your reference. In fact there is no acknowledgement whatsoever that what you have fired off into the internet has even reached them at all, let alone what stage your complaint might be at or when you might get a reply. I heard absolutley nothing until I had a reply by email five weeks later.

I hope the inspectors are all sleeping well this week.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thank you so much for your insight into the inspection Julian. It certainly provides a deeper context, and if anything, shows that the inspection was ill-timed and was in unrepresentative of the excellent standards I know are in evidence at Woodford school. This post has already been viewed over 33,000 times as I write, and people are generally outraged by what has happened. Let's hope that exposure of this debacle (and others like it) on social media will contribute to an end to this madness.
lisa meakin said…
I am so sorry to read about this amazing lady and how the pressure of Ofsted contributed to her death. I too was a governor of a primary school who had an amazing headteacher. He believed in the children and would often give up personal events to dedicate his time to the pupils of his school. However, the local authority had him labelled as a failing headteacher after an Ofsted visit, they harassed him and put more pressure on his shoulders and then one day at the beginning of SATS week, he was told to pack his belongings and go home and was now suspended until an investigation had been carried out. He was not told why, who, where or how, but all the staff of the school knew! The complaint was that he had told a child an answer to a question and that child had told their mum, the mum complained to a teaching assistant who in turn told the deputy head. That deputy head then contacted the local authority, this is not the process the school has regarding its complaints policy! That headteacher dropped into depression and had thoughts of jumping off a bridge several times. He thought that because he didn't know what the complaint was, his mind was in constant turmoil trying to think of what could have happened. His health was suffering badly so I said to the board of governors that I would support him no matter what. Thank god I did as those texts of desperation from him stopped him from ending his own life many times over. As the investigation pursued, it came to light that the parent didn't actually say what the local authority had originally said she had. The statements taken were not enough to dismiss him but the damage was done, he resigned on the basis of bad health. I sent a detailed email to every one of the governors informing them of my resignation and the reasons why I no longer wanted to be part of an authorative body that pushed a man close to taking his own life, the local authority hounded him to attend meetings when he was having counselling sessions and taking antidepressants. I wanted him to sue them for wrongful and constructive dismissal but he did not have the mental ability to go through it. It has taken him four years to get back to some normality and he has now secured a job working with children and football, the two things he loved doing whilst he was a headteacher. However, he stills believes that he is shamed and no school would employ him within the city. He had done nothing wrong but his family were very close to the brink of losing him. Ofsted are cruel in some of their visits and investigations but the local authority were crueller, no support given but hunted him down like a wounded animal, shame on them. What happened to both of our head teachers may be a drop in the ocean over all the schools in the UK but they are not the only two and I feel there will be more cases like these unless policies are changed!
Steve Wheeler said…
Lisa, thank you so much for your comments, which eloquently shed further light on the culture of fear and blame that is pervading our education systems. Sadly I'm not surprised by you story, as it seems to be the norm now. Teachers are always looking over their shoulders as the pressure mounts on them to produce higher grades, better exam results, higher attendance statistics. It seems that metrics are all that matter now, and schools rise or fall on these numbers. At the same time, unrecognised by the authorities, is the steady haemorrhage of teachers leaving the profession, long term sickness due to psychiatric disorders and other stress related illnesses, and in extreme cases... personal tragedy. It's time we all started speaking out against the damage that is being done through performativity and managerialism.

This blog post has now been read by more than 42,000 people in less than 2 days. I hope others also write and make their voices heard on this most urgent of issues.
Anonymous said…
So sad. I've left my teaching job this month after 16 yrs in the profession. Had to get out before I had a breakdown.

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