Curse of the OFSTED report
ON December 17, 1999, the Walsall Observer reported on its front page how the education authority had been savaged by the Office for Standards in Education.
Five months later, the Labour group lost control of the council for the first time in five years to a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.
Were these two events connected? Can local authorities expect punishment at the ballot box if they get the inspectors' thumbs-down?
Harold Withnall, former Labour leader in Walsall, said he had no evidence that the report had influenced voting.
As the inspection regime was launched only three years ago, and only about 20 of 150 authorities have so far received poor inspection reports, examples of paying a political price are not easy to find.
Plymouth received a critical report last year, then Labour lost control of the city to the Tories. But the report's impact on the result is debatable.
Professor Michael Thrasher, a local government-watcher from Plymouth University, said it was more likely that a higher turnout for the previous elections in 1997 worked against Labour.
However, academics believe that OFSTED reports can influence voters. Tony Travers, local government expert at the London School of Economics, said:
"OFSTED has probably the highest profile of all the regulators, meaning that if a local authority has a bad OFSTED report, it is going to get lots of coverage in the local press. That is bound to contribute to voters' overall impressions of a council."
Mr Travers said that councils hich have had poor OFSTED reports tend to have been deficient in other areas. Therefore, a poor report would simply have contributed to voters' dissatisfaction with its performance.
Changes in political leadership can make a potentially decisive impact on the quality of services, which are then reflected in OFSTED reports.
Liberal Democrats may, with some justification, argue that this has happened in the previously struggling north London borough of Islington, where the party won control just before most services were privatised last year. In March, OFSTED said that the new leadership had helped the council begin to turn its services around.
This year, the only chance of the inspectorate seriously influencing an election is in Bristol (see story above right), OFSTED issued a critical report in the wake of the council's decision to hold a referendum on the level of its council tax.
Whether education has a great impact on voters is also debatable. Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at the University of Liverpool, said: "Whatever question marks there are over the advent of school performance tables and OFSTED inspections, they have now directed a lot of parents' attention to the performance of schools.
"It's quite possible, in these circumstances, that education could be a factor at the ballot box."
However, Donald Shell, a senior lecturer in politics at Bristol University, said: "It's possible that a parent with a child at a failing school might be affected. But I don't think local education policies make a great impact with the generality of the public."