Ofsted accused of being ministerial 'poodle' over school report cards

10th July 2009 at 01:00
Joint working between DCSF and watchdog is a mistake, says select committee chair

Ofsted was accused of being the Government's "poodle" during an Commons committee hearing this week, as its chair described Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector, as no Chris Woodhead.

The watchdog's independence is being called into question by MPs. They are concerned that ministers will have the final say on the composition of the school report cards that will form a core part of Ofsted's checks on schools.

Edward Timpson, a Conservative member of the Commons' schools committee, said the situation left Ofsted open to the charge that it had been "taken under the wing of the Government and is simply acting as its poodle".

Barry Sheerman, Labour chair of the committee, suggested to Vernon Coaker, the schools minister, that joint working between Ofsted and the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) on the report card was a mistake.

"Why don't we get rid of Ofsted if it's so cosy with the Government and you are doing all these nice joint policies?" he said. "We see quite a comfortable relationship between Ofsted and the department. They don't want to rock the boat, do they? It's hardly Chris Woodhead in charge at the moment, is it?"

Mr Coaker countered: "It's not Chris Woodhead. But it is somebody who works hard and does challenge us."

Mr Woodhead, the first head of Ofsted, was known for his outspoken comments on everything from the quality of teachers to failing local authorities. Ms Gilbert has opted for a quieter, less headline-grabbing style. She has not shied away from implicit criticism of the Government. Last year, she warned that education in some schools suffered because of the testing system.

But critics have accused her of doing ministers' bidding by making school inspection verdicts more dependent on raw exam results, in line with the Government's controversial National Challenge scheme.

Data collected for report cards - on pupil progress, wellbeing and attainment, and pupil and parent perceptions - will be used by Ofsted to select schools for inspection.

The cards have been presented as a joint DCSF-Ofsted initiative. But, appearing before the committee in May, Ms Gilbert admitted that the watchdog had "no idea" how they would be administered or who would grade them.

This week, Jon Coles, the director general for schools at the DCSF, told the committee that the report card data belonged to his department not Ofsted, but that the inspectorate was free to use whatever information it felt was suitable.

Mr Sheerman said his committee had picked up some "sulking" and "resentment" from within Ofsted about the department's "intrusion" on to its territory.

An Ofsted spokesperson said: "Ofsted is an independent government department that is supporting the DCSF in its work to develop the school report card." He said the report card was solely owned by the DCSF, although Ofsted's logo had appeared on consultation documents and draft versions.

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