Woodhead faces union anger after suicide

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The Independent Online

Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, will face a fresh assault from union leaders this week amid claims that an Ofsted inspection triggered the suicide of a primary school teacher.

Members of the 150,000-strong Association of Teachers and Lecturers will debate a motion accusing the Office for Standards in Education of precipitating the death of union member Pamela Relf, who committed suicide in January by jumping into a freezing river.

The emergency motion was submitted on the eve of the conference in Belfast, which starts today, after the inquest into Miss Relf's death brought into sharp focus teachers' long-standing complaints about overwork, stress and the effect of Ofsted inspections.

Yesterday Peter Smith, the Association's general secretary, accused Mr Woodhead of being "gratuitously offensive and insensitive" during an angry exchange of letters following Miss Relf's death.

He also criticised the chief inspector for saying it would not be appropriate to write a letter of sympathy to her relatives in the weeks after her death.

Mr Smith said yesterday: "I would never say the Ofsted inspection caused Pamela Relf's suicide. I think it triggered her suicide; that is beyond doubt." He added that feelings among delegates would be running high. He said: "There's a widespread feeling that Ofsted inspection goes way beyond that which is proper and positive."

Miss Relf, 57, a teacher at Middlefield Primary School in Eynesbury, Cambridgeshire, had been depressed for some time, but broke down in tears after criticism from Ofsted inspectors.

She left a handwritten note. It said: "I am now finding the stress of my job too much. The pace of work and the long days are more than I can do."

Her brother David Relf, himself a former teacher, said she had spoken about the pressure of preparing paperwork and tests. He said: "He [Mr Woodhead] wants to improve standards and he wants to root out incompetent teachers, but it seems to me that this is not the right way of going about it.

"Our family has lost a member and there's a combination of horror and regret and an enormous amount of unhappiness. This system I would argue contributed to that."

The issues of pressure, overwork and pay are likely to dominate the classroom union conferences. Union leaders are urging the Government to ease bureaucracy and new initiatives which they say have diverted staff from their job of raising standards.

In an exchange of letters, Mr Woodhead rejected Mr Smith's accusation that Ofsted was unsympathetic to Miss Relf's death. But he said that "it would not be appropriate" to express his condolences in a letter to Miss Relf's brother. He later expressed his regret in a radio interview.

A spokesman for Ofsted said yesterday that the inspectorate had worked to reduce the stress of inspections and would continue to do so.