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Labour party conference: Pledge to scrap education watchdog Ofsted

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Labour will unveil plans to scrap Ofsted and replace it with a new school inspection system on day two of its party conference - but debate over its Brexit stance is set to continue.

As part of a focus to "rebuild" public services, it will also pledge to end NHS prescription charges in England.

It comes after the first day of the conference was overshadowed by a failed bid to oust deputy leader Tom Watson.

He later called for unity, saying it had been a "bad start".

Labour was also dealt a fresh blow after one of Jeremy Corbyn's senior aides, head of policy Andrew Fisher, revealed he will quit his post by the end of the year.

Among those due to speak at the annual conference on Sunday are shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth and shadow education secretary Angela Rayner.

Ms Rayner is expected to set out plans to scrap England's education watchdog Ofsted - which Labour calls "unfit for purpose" - and replace it with its own inspection system.

Under the party's plan, all schools would have regular "health checks" run by local councils and then, if concerns are raised, more in-depth visits from full-time, trained inspectors.

It would mean the end of grades for schools such as outstanding, good or inadequate.

But opponents will say that is reducing scrutiny and abandoning safeguards over standards.

Former Ofsted chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw, described the plan as "bonkers".

Meanwhile, a row has emerged over where Labour should stand on Brexit if it fights a general election.

A draft policy plan has been put forward by leader Jeremy Corbyn suggesting that, if Labour wins power, it would remain neutral while negotiating a new Brexit deal before holding another referendum.

But some Labour MPs believe Labour should be supporting Remain.

While in government in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Labour had repeatedly rejected calls from the National Union of Teachers (now part of a wider National Education Union) to end Ofsted inspections.

The teachers' unions had attacked Ofsted inspections as being unfair, bureaucratic and excessively stressful.

But Labour, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, had kept the education watchdog as a key part of maintaining standards and providing information for parents.

The plans presented by Ms Rayner would see Ofsted being completely abolished.

It would mean that parents looking at schools would no longer have the descriptions of inspection ratings, which are currently outstanding, good, requires improvement and inadequate.

Labour says that such single-word labels do not do justice to the complexities of a school's strengths and weaknesses - and instead parents will have more detailed information.

The proposal is likely to be popular among teachers, who have criticised the extra workload created by inspections and challenged the credibility of the judgements.

The National Association of Head Teachers thought a "light-touch health-check approach" of the kind proposed by Labour is "the right way to go".

The heads' union liked the idea of schools being "back in the driving seat".

Labour will also announce a promise to axe prescription charges in England if the party wins power, taking it in line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where they are already free.

In England the NHS currently charges £9 per item, although 80% of prescriptions are already issued free of charge, as those on low incomes or with some long-term conditions are not required to pay.

On Saturday evening, Mr Corbyn said Labour, if in power, would try to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the UK to net-zero before 2050, which is the government's current target.

image copyrightPA Media
image captionMr Corbyn spoke on the opening day of a four-day festival which runs alongside the Labour conference

Speaking at The World Transformed, a politics, arts and music festival which happens alongside the party conference, Mr Corbyn said a Labour government "will not walk hand-in-hand with Donald Trump and say 'Yes Donald, we understand the special needs of your country'.

"We'll be the ones that say: 'Paris, good, go further, go faster. Reach zero emissions before 2050.'"

Earlier, the party announced a plan to force large employers to provide flexible working hours to women experiencing symptoms related to the menopause.

But the conference's opening day was overshadowed by an attempt to get rid of Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, by abolishing his position.

The motion had been tabled by Jon Lansman, the founder of Labour grassroots group Momentum. It was later dropped, following an outcry from Labour MPs and an intervention by leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Mr Watson said he was "disappointed" at the attempt, but called for the party to come together, adding: "I always forgive and forget."

Divisions over Brexit

Labour's stance on the UK leaving the EU will also dominate the agenda during the conference, ahead of a vote on the party's Brexit policy scheduled for Monday evening.

A draft plan is to be discussed by the National Executive Committee - the party's ruling body - which would set out a plan for Labour, if it wins power, to negotiate a new Brexit deal in three months.

media captionTom Watson: "We've had a bad start to our conference"

Under the plan, the Brexit deal it reaches would then be put to the people in a referendum within six months, with the option of the deal or Remain.

But the party would not decide which option it would support until a special conference after the election, meaning Labour would fight an election without saying whether it was backing Remain or Leave.

Some Labour MPs are not happy at the plan to remain neutral until then.

According to BBC political correspondent Nick Eardley, 80 out of 90 Brexit motions which could be discussed at the conference call on Labour to back Remain.

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry has said Labour should be clear in its support for Remain.

Speaking at a rally in Brighton organised by the People's Vote campaign, which wants another referendum, Ms Thornberry said: "We must make sure that there is a second referendum and Remain is on the ballot paper and Labour campaigns for Remain - and not just that, Labour should lead the campaign."

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer told the same rally that he backed a second referendum and confirmed he would campaign for Remain.

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