Blair's top appointees to quit schools inspectorate

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The Independent Online

The two most senior executives at the education standards watchdog, Ofsted, are leaving their jobs as the school inspectorate faces a major review of its operations.

Christine Gilbert, the chief schools inspector who is also chief executive of Oftsed, has told the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, that she will not renew her contract when it expires next year. The coalition Government is expected to try to persuade her to stand down from her position earlier.

Zenna Atkins, a social entrepreneur who is the chairman of Ofsted, said yesterday that she was also quitting.

She will take up a new post as chief executive of GEMS Education, a private company founded by a Dubai-based tycoon, Sunny Varkey, which is seeking to run some of the new Swedish-style independent "free" schools being set up by Mr Gove.

Relations between Ms Gilbert and Mr Gove were always likely to be fraught because the Conservatives saw her as a New Labour appointment. She is married to Tony McNulty, the former Labour minister who resigned from the Cabinet over the MPs' expenses scandal and lost his Harrow East seat to a Tory in last month's election.

Ms Gilbert, a former headteacher who masterminded improvements in the London borough of Tower Hamlets as its director of education, strenuously denied any suggestion of "cronyism" and retorted that she hardly ever saw her husband.

However, Mr Gove made it clear during the election campaign that he wanted to see a review of Ofsted's role, accepting the arguments of heads and teachers that it had become too bureaucratic and relied on a mountain of paperwork to assess schools.

He said he wanted to see the organisation return to its core function of judging schools primarily on their teaching quality.

Ms Atkins said of her departure: "I am now ready for a challenge and the free schools agenda, in particular, is one that really excites me."

Both she and Ms Gilbert started at Ofsted at the same time in 2006, when Tony Blair was Prime Minister. During their reign, Oftsed has been involved in several controversies, most notably the aftermath of the Baby Peter scandal in Haringey, when an emergency inspection contradicted an earlier report that the borough's children's services were "good".

Ms Gilbert incurred the wrath of teaching unions by insisting that a "satisfactory" inspection rating on a school was "not good enough". They accused her of rewriting the English language. However, she was not afraid to criticise the Labour government's record. In her first annual report after taking office, she declared: "More needs to be done, and swiftly, to reduce the number of secondary schools found to be inadequate."

She added that the report card on Britain's education system over the previous decade should read "still not good enough". It was hardly the verdict that Mr Blair, then in his last year in power, would have wanted given his famous commitment to "education, education, education".

Her departure paves the way for Mr Gove to seek a champion of "traditional education" to take her place.