MPs rebel by refusing new Ofsted chief

Amanda Spielman
Image caption Amanda Spielman has been rejected by MPs as the next head of Ofsted

The permanent revolution in political life is everywhere.

It's even reached the shores of the education watchdog, Ofsted. Against all expectations, the officially nominated new chief inspector of schools has been turned down by the Education Select Committee.

And it sets the scene for another political stand-off, as Education Secretary Nicky Morgan appears to want to press ahead and enforce her chosen candidate.

The select committee cannot veto the appointment, but it's a huge snub.

At the end of this year, the high-profile and highly independent Sir Michael Wilshaw is due to step down as the head of Ofsted.

Mrs Morgan announced Amanda Spielman, chair of the exams watchdog Ofqual, as his nominated successor.

A "pre-appointment" appearance before the select committee was seen as a polite formality, but with rebellion and uncertainty in the air, the MPs on the committee have ditched the expected script.

They've thrown the rubber stamp through the window and announced that they are going to reject Ms Spielman.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The new head of Ofsted will replace Sir Michael Wilshaw when he steps down later this year

She "failed to demonstrate to us the vision and passion we would expect", said the MPs on the Conservative-chaired committee.

They were seriously underwhelmed and did not have confidence in her appropriateness for the job.

Committee chairman Neil Carmichael said the decision reflected the "seriousness of our concerns regarding this appointment".

This is tricky, because it means that the education secretary will either have to force through the appointment against the will of the committee - or else face a rather awkward retreat.

On Monday, Mrs Morgan wrote back to the MPs that she was "surprised and disappointed" by their rejection but she remained "wholeheartedly in support of Amanda as the best person for this crucial role".

There is a precedent for this.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Nicky Morgan says that Amanda Spielman still has her wholehearted support

Four years ago, when Vince Cable was Business Secretary, the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee tried to block his chosen candidate as the head of the Office for Fair Access.

Mr Cable refused to back down, and, in the end, after much public wrangling, the secretary of state was able to override the MPs on the select committee.

But if that had much to do with the politics of the coalition, this is now the politics of the vacuum.

With a new prime minister and cabinet changes in the offing, it's quite possible that the MPs on the select committee will still be there after Mrs Morgan has left the education department.

Would a newly installed secretary of state want to defend an appointment not of their choosing?

Image caption Committee chairman Neil Carmichael says the appointment should not proceed

There are already questions about whether a whole stack of planned education reforms are going to be ditched in the maelstrom of the change of leader.

It's also not a particularly comfortable position for Ms Spielman, who helped to found a successful academy chain and has been an important figure in reforming exams.

Now she has been turned down in a very public job interview, and her appointment will depend on the education secretary overruling the committee.

How independent could she be as an education watchdog whose appointment is dependent on the political will of the education secretary?

Could she really hold the education secretary's policies to account?

The National Union of Teachers says that the MPs' decision vindicates their view that a chief inspector of schools should have some experience of teaching.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption MPs have turned down the ministerial choice - but they cannot veto

It also returns to the question that MPs were asking. What type of person is wanted as the next head of Ofsted?

Sir Michael Wilshaw has been an outspoken figure, with the credibility of having served as a head teacher who turned round failing schools.

He was also ready to deliver uncomfortable truths to ministers, often to their annoyance.

Now the education secretary will have to make a decision about whether to ignore the parliamentary scrutiny of a job that is all about independent scrutiny.

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