Minister’s wife named as new Ofsted chief

The government was forced to deny suggestions of cronyism yesterday when the wife of a Home Office minister was named the new head of education watchdog Ofsted.

Christine Gilbert, a former head teacher and currently chief executive of the London borough of Tower Hamlets, will take over as chief inspector of schools in October.

Ms Gilbert spent 18 years in teaching, of which eight were spent as head of the Whitmore high school in Harrow, and held the post of director of education at Harrow council for five years before taking over at Tower Hamlets.

The fact of her marriage to police minister Tony McNulty has raised eyebrows across Westminster, although the government denied allegations of cronyism, saying she applied for the position “through an open competition”.

However, the Liberal Democrats warned Ms Gilbert must not let her close ties with the government get in the way of working for higher standards in schools.

“The job of chief inspector is not one of de facto cheerleader for whatever is government policy of the day,” said education spokeswoman Sarah Teather.

“While I congratulate her on the appointment, I think she will need to reassure the public that her ties to the current government won’t influence her ability to carry out the role fairly. That is something she is going to have to prove.”

Ms Gilbert takes over as Ofsted chief from Maurice Smith, who succeeded David Bell on what was only ever meant to be a temporary basis last December.

“I am delighted to have a chance to fulfil such an interesting and challenging national role, especially as Ofsted moves towards a new single inspectorate covering education, children’s services and skills,” she said.

Mr McNulty and Ms Gilbert are not the first couple to come into the political spotlight. Culture secretary Tessa Jowell came under intense pressure over links between her husband, corporate lawyer David Mills, and Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Constitutional affairs minister Harriet Harman was forced to defend her husband, Labour party treasurer Jack Dromey, against claims that his call for an inquiry into party funding was designed to damage Tony Blair.

And the prime minister himself is often called to account for the often controversial comments and actions of his wife, human rights QC Cherie Booth.

However, shadow education secretary David Willetts said Ms Gilbert should be judged on her results in her new job as schools inspector, saying: “What parents will care about is not whether Christine Gilbert is married to a Labour MP.

“What they will care about is whether she uses Ofsted to press for higher standards in our schools. If she tackles that with vigour and political impartiality she will have our support.”