NEU conference: Shadow education secretary heckled over Ofsted

Labour wants to reform the watchdog, while the National Education Union favours abolition

Labour wants to reform the watchdog, while the National Education Union favours abolition

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson was heckled by delegates at the National Education Union conference today as she spoke about Labour’s plans to reform Ofsted.

Shouting broke out in the hall in Bournemouth when the politician started speaking about the watchdog, and how it needs to “turn a corner”.

It is thought to be the first time a Labour politician has been heckled at an education union conference since the party was in power pre-2010. Conservative politicians have faced interruptions more recently, however.

The NEU wants Ofsted to be abolished, and delegates this week passed a motion calling for the creation of a “new system of collaborative support and accountability”.

But Labour has said it will reform, not scrap the inspectorate, giving it a strengthened school improvement role, with the length and timing of inspections and grading also up for discussion.

Phillipson told delegates today that to be “to be supportive of inspection, is not to believe it cannot be better”.

“For one thing, it is hardly surprising if the Ofsted we need tomorrow is different from the Ofsted we needed 30 years ago.

“For another, the way inspections operate makes teachers, leaders and lecturers too often feel punished rather than supported.”

Some delegates responded with shouts of “abolish it”, while others booed the shadow education secretary.

Engagement with politicians ‘vital’, says NEU boss

NEU president Daniel Kebede attempted to calm the hall, asking shouting delegates to take an “early lunch”.

“I’m not going to have this continued shouting out. If you don’t want to be here, no-one’s forcing you to be.”

He later added: “Conference, you’re like children, settle down.”

Phillipson finished her speech despite repeated interruptions, and received applause after joint NEU general secretary Kevin Courtney thanked her for her appearance.

Courtney said it was “vital” for the NEU to engage with every political party. He said the union believed Ofsted was a “toxic brand”, but added: “we are here to engage in a serious way with politicians that want to engage with us”.

Labour’s current position on Ofsted differs from the policy pursued under Jeremy Corbyn. Ahead of the 2019 general election, Labour pledged to scrap the watchdog and replace it with a new system involving local authority “health checks”.

But the party confirmed last year that under Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership Ofsted would be reformed, not abolished.

Phillipson said today that Labour would reform inspections so the “intensity of the experience is reasonable and proportionate”. She wants a process that points teachers to the “support they need to improve”, and that considers the “broad context for schools”.

She added that inspection of multi-academy trusts was also “missing” from the current system.

‘If people don’t want to engage, that’s their choice’

Speaking to journalists following her speech, Phillipson said she was “clear Ofsted does need to change”, and wanted to “speak to teachers and to leaders and to parents about how we make that change”.

“But if that’s going to be effective it’s got to be a two-way process, and that means genuine engagement. If people don’t want to engage, that’s their choice.”

She said school staff and leaders reported inspection was “punitive, and not as supportive as it ought to be”.

“I understand the frustration that teachers feel around that, but I also understand that parents want to make sure that things are going well within their child’s school. I don’t think we’ve got the balance right at the moment.”

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