Reporter's take: scrapping Ofsted could be a vote-loser

In the red corner, Labour wants to ban Ofsted – but in the blue, the Tories beg to differ. Dave Speck looks at how schools policy could be a key battleground in the December election

election 2019

The build-up to the 2019 general election has only just begun, but education already looks set to be a key battleground. 

In the red corner, Labour says it will abolish and replace Ofsted so that “schools are no longer subject to a one-word grade”. Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner was met with rapturous applause from an eager crowd at the Labour Party conference in September when she made the announcement.

Many of the activists and party members present in Brighton whom Tes spoke to thought it was a brilliant idea, citing the extra workload, stress and anxiety Ofsted creates for teachers and heads.

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It was almost a case of: “Why hasn’t anyone thought of this sooner?”

The Liberal Democrats, of course, already had. The party outlined its own plans for abolishing the inspectorate in March 2018.

But if the opposition parties think they are tapping into some widespread dissatisfaction with Ofsted, the blue corner begs to differ. The Conservatives may have used their 2015 general election manifesto to pledge reform of Ofsted, but today they are standing firmly by the inspectorate. Indeed, the party appears to view this new “dividing line” over the future of the watchdog as an electoral asset.

Boris Johnson even used the opening speech of his election campaign to criticise Labour's plans to ban Ofsted which, he said, "protects kids from bullying in the classroom”.

A source close to education secretary Gavin Williamson also recently stressed to Tes how much parents trust the inspectorate, and that the single-word ratings are one of the first things they look at when buying a house.

And, of course, parents make up a much larger group at the polls than teachers.

So are Labour and the Lib Dems taking a gamble on Ofsted by reflecting the views of teaching unions and their activists rather than the public at large? 

Ms Rayner counters with a warning that Ofsted ratings are “disingenuous to parents” and don’t measure what’s happening “from classroom to classroom”.

One thing many people agree on, however, is the need for more school funding.

The Conservatives learned this the hard way at the 2017 general election when lack of cash for schools apparently cost them 750,000 votes at the polls.

Taking no chances, this time they’ve pledged an extra “£14 billion” – which amounts to £7.1 billion when you discount the double and triple counting, and is worth only £4.3 billion when you take into account inflation, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS). 

But will that amount be enough to turn a negative into a positive? Or will parents listen to cash-strapped headteachers at the helms of their children’s schools instead?

So far in the election campaign, both Labour and the Lib Dems have made a series of pledges covering early education, free school meals and mental health support in schools. They will need to continue the theme if they want to seize the initiative on the key issue of school funding.

Unless, of course, it's too late. The Conservatives believe that school funding problems have 'dropped off the bottom' of pre-election polling, and that their pledges have already neutralised the issue. Many headteachers remain to be convinced; time will tell if their scepticism is catching.

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Dave Speck

Dave Speck is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @Specktator100

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