Leading Article: Ofsted must retain its independence

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The Independent Online

It comes as no surprise that the Chief Inspector of Schools, Christine Gilbert, will not be renewing her contract as head of Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, when it expires next year.

She was always destined to have a tricky relationship with the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, as the Conservatives believed she owed her job to "cronyism", though she strenuously denied this. She is the wife of a former Labour government minister, Tony McNulty. For the record, we believe that she has done her job impartially, delivering a broadside to the government in her first annual report by saying there were still too many inadequate secondary schools and that urgent action was needed. She gave a new meaning in the English language to the word "satisfactory". In her book, it meant "not good enough". Teachers accused her of rewriting the English dictionary.

There will be a new broom sweeping through Ofsted soon, reviewing the inspection process yet again. Gove wants it to concentrate less on judging schools through the paperwork they have prepared and to spend more time on observing lessons. That means judging the quality of teaching in the classroom.

Ofsted's brief in the last few years of Labour expanded dramatically. If ministers ever had a problem to solve, such as obesity, vetting adults who work with children, creating more community cohesion, or checking on the standards of school dinners, it was always Ofsted which had to cast its eye over the problem.

Ofsted expanded to include all children's services in its remit – childminders, nannies and vulnerable youngsters. Yet its inspectors are not childcare experts or social workers, and are not well placed to judge on some of these issues. Gilbert didn't seek these new powers. But some in education circles feel that she could have fought against the giddy expansion of Ofsted's role. If the coalition Government is to introduce a new, tighter remit for Ofsted, then it makes sense to bring in new people at the top to oversee its introduction.

One word of caution. It would be wrong if the Government were to appoint someone who is ideologically on the Conservative or Lib Dem side to take over from Gilbert. We need an independent Ofsted. After all, was not the Tories' main complaint against Gilbert – albeit unfounded – that she was a crony of Tony Blair?

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