Future of Ofsted moves centre stage in election battle

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The future of England's schools inspectorate looks set to play a key role in this year's general election campaign. 

Both the main opposition parties want to get rid of Ofsted. But Conservative party strategists have made it clear that they regard the issue as an electoral gift from Labour and the Lib Dems. 

They view it as an opportunity to set out a clear division on schools policy, and one that will leave the Tories on the right side of the debate as far as parents are concerned.

Prime minister Boris Johnson confirmed as much this afternoon when he put Ofsted at the heart of his opening speech in the  Conservative's 2019 general election campaign.

He pledged his support for the watchdog halfway through a 12-minute address outside Downing Street today, saying: “Come with us, a government which is putting billions into education, or go with Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party who actually want to ban Ofsted which protects kids from bullying in the classroom.” 

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The comments echo Mr Johnson's party conference speech last month when he claimed that Labour planned to "stamp out excellence in schools by banning Ofsted – the inspectors who ensure that schools are safe for our children”.

Labour takes a very different view and argues that Ofsted is failing to give parents an accurate account of school standards and fuelling a crisis in teacher recruitment.

“We would abolish Ofsted and we would replace it with a different system," shadow education secretary Angela Rayner has said.

“I believe Ofsted measures poverty. It measures deprivation. It doesn’t measure excellence. And I think Ofsted has to measure excellence. It’s driving these competitive league tables.”

But a source close to education secretary Gavin Williamson has told Tes that the future of Ofsted is one of the "major dividing lines" between the two parties, and said the Tories hadn’t expected Labour to go as far as proposing to abolish rather than reform it.

“The key thing is that Ofsted is trusted by parents," he said. "It’s one of the first tools parents turn to from the very start. Even before they have kids, when buying a house, they look at the Ofsted grade of the local nursery school.”

This afternoon, pundits took to Twitter after Mr Johnson's speech, suggesting that the abolition of Ofsted must have featured strongly in polls and focus groups.

The Liberal Democrats are clear that the inspectorate must go because it "lost the faith of the teaching profession long ago".

"I hear it all the time from teachers – the fear of inspections in no way spurs improvements in lessons," Layla Moran, the party's education spokesperson has said.

But when Tes asked today whether Ofsted was featuring strongly in the party's own polling or in doorstep conversations, Ms Moran said: "Not at all. What people care about is funding and the wellbeing of children – in particular, stress and mental health. 

"According to parents I speak to, stress at school for children is caused by many factors, but high on the list is exam stress caused by the way Ofsted and our high-stakes examination system narrow the curriculum and reduce children to progress measures rather than looking at the whole child.

"That’s why we would scrap league tables and Sats, and replace Ofsted with an even more rigorous inspectorate system that takes account of all aspects of a child’s education, putting social-emotional development alongside attainment."

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Dave Speck

Dave Speck is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @Specktator100

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