David Bell is a natural diplomat. Does he prefer Charles Clarke to Estelle Morris? The chief inspector of schools could not possibly say. Both, in their different ways, have struck him as excellent ministers to do business with.
Tact is vital in a post whose occupant must demonstrate, among other talents, the essential art of not being Chris Woodhead. One cannot imagine Bell railing, in the way of his most notorious predecessor, against "incompetent" teachers or musing on experiential sex with sixth-formers.
A former primary school teacher from Glasgow, Bell became head of Ofsted a little over a year ago after a varied, and glittering, career as an educator and administrator. At 43, he is as precocious a high-achiever as the schools minister, David Miliband. Neither his youth, nor his non-combative style, should betoken any lack of rigour in Bell. So far, he has noted poor standards in further education colleges, accused the government of a "myopic" obsession with targets and described the changes to the A-level curriculum as, at best, "only modest". Such criticisms are mild in comparison with the chronicle of failure he is about to unleash.
On 10 June, Bell will publish his report on attainment levels for the 14-16 age group. He describes findings that will be read as an indictment of the education system and a mark of government failure as "striking and worrying". Bell's data shows that an alarming number of youngsters are being abandoned by the system and that their plight is getting worse. As ministers and international surveys vaunt evidence of progress, up to one-fifth of England's children may now be destined for the scrap heap. "At 16, you are looking at one in five that we know really don't go anywhere at the end of compulsory schooling - neither to further schooling nor education nor, in many cases, to work."
Does that mean their future lies in court or prison? "You can track that line of causality all the way through," Bell says. "A striking number of young people in the criminal justice system have lower levels of literacy and numeracy, or have been excluded from school. If we can get investment early on in the education system right, it will save the country millions."
The rise in overall standards not only masks the failure rate at the bottom. Perversely, it is "highlighting the weaknesses for that disadvantaged group of youngsters. More and more children are achieving the required [literacy] level at 11, but those who don't do so find secondary education an even greater struggle . . . 50 per cent of boys are not achieving the required standard at 11. Fast-forward to 14, and one in five boys is not achieving the standards expected of 11-year-olds. You get a very vivid picture of why we've got difficulties." The lack of jobs for the unqualified has, Bell believes, compounded the bleak future for a generation whose failure is insufficiently emphasised by government.
"It's not a particularly hot political potato. That's the reality. It's tempting to say these young people and their families have disenfranchised themselves - that they're not as important as electoral target groups. . . . But I come back to natural justice and to social consequences. No one should be comfortable with an education system that results in so many children dropping out, because that is in no one's interests. In the end, we are all going to suffer if youngsters don't believe they can take part in society, feel disenfranchised and turn to crime. I don't want to let this issue go quiet. There's a temptation to say how well we are doing and take the credit. But there's a danger, then, of thinking that everything in the garden is rosy. We mustn't lose sight of these youngsters. They deserve a good education, too."
The implicit charge, more damaging than stabs from Woodhead, is that this government has neglected the worst-off children while pandering to the strident middle classes. Bell also acknowledges the intractable nature of the problem and the need for a strategy that goes far beyond the classroom. He is hopeful that the government's emphasis on early years, essential in his opinion, will feed through the system and ultimately mean fewer dead-end pupils. Conversely, an Ofsted report published on 2 June on two much-vaunted initiatives for tough inner-city areas noted only mixed success.
Nor is Bell sanguine that the recent expansion of pupil referral units (PRUs) for the excluded will offer a satis- factory solution. "There are some very good PRUs, but there is a high degree of variability. So again, you have this picture of the education system doing increasingly well at the top, and probably the middle to top end now, while this group at the bottom becomes increasingly isolated."
Criticism that government is failing the disadvantaged will come as grim news to Charles Clarke, already embroiled in travails ranging from a partial retreat on tests at age seven to a failure, despite a £650m outlay, to cut truancy. Ministers' excuse that this discrepancy is caused by better reporting of non-attendance is not shared by Bell. The latest figures, showing that pupils miss 0.7 per cent of classes, are "a reminder - if we need reminding. All the evidence points in the same direction," he says. He cites "low attendance, difficult behaviour, poor achievement and high teacher turnover" as enmeshed factors in a cycle of failure.
On Clarke's major worry, the row surrounding the £500m hole in the schools budget, Bell has inside knowledge. He, it seems, was the whistleblower. The chief inspector warned government of the impending crisis three months before the storm finally broke. "By February or early March . . . I picked up a very strong sense that something had gone awry. I heard heads speak with some feeling and passion. I can't be expected to deal with that. It's not my issue. But obviously my responsibility is to feed it back, and that is what I did. I fed it back to officials."
Did he also mention the incipient meltdown to Charles Clarke at their monthly meetings? "I can't remember," Bell says. Whether or not the two men discussed a situation Bell recognised as extremely grave, it seems clear that a warning delivered by the chief inspector was not passed on to the Secretary of State by DfES officials. Or else that Clarke ignored it. Bell does not want to comment any further on the cash crisis. "All I will say is that it has certainly dented confidence in the funding sys- tem as it currently stands." And confidence in the government? "Oh, I think there's no doubt of that."
It is hard to gauge Bell's exact relationship with Whitehall. Some reports paint him as a natural new Labourite. Education insiders consider him, conversely, as slightly aloof from politics and education networks. Certainly, he has an outsider's credentials. He attended a Glasgow comprehensive, the source of his passion for "classlessness", and became the first in his family to go to university. Bell moved from primary classrooms to be assistant education director in Newcastle and the youngest chief executive of a county council, Bedfordshire. Last year, after Mike Tomlinson's interregnum, Bell became the permanent replacement for Woodhead, inheriting his grand salary of £115,000 - though not his baroque tone.
Presumably, Bell does not subscribe to his predecessor's recent comment, in a Sunday newspaper article, that Charles Clarke is "confused and incompetent"? "I find secretaries of state easy to do business with. It is not for me to make comments like that." Nor would he ever wish to be seen as a soft touch. "I adopt a particular style, but what we've been discussing today" (he means school failures) "is pretty tough. You could argue that's quite an indictment of the education system . . . You don't want to be seen as the siren voice that criticises absolutely everything, yet on the other hand this office will lose all authority if you're just seen as the poodle of government."
Bell prefers to regard himself as the defender of the child. Can pupils, and their teachers, assume that he will not ultimately end up, like Chris Woodhead, as a strident media pundit? "It is very important that the chief inspector doesn't get out of sync with Ofsted's evidence. If I pontificate on education matters and don't provide that evidence, I'm just another kind of saloon bar critic." This sounds very dismissive of Woodhead. "It's not for me to comment on the way others have done the job. I do know the way I shall do it."
For now, his focus is on the failing teenagers at the centre of his next report. In David Bell's eyes, they are the unacceptable legacy of half a century of educational growth. "We are not cracking it with these youngsters. As long as that remains the case, none of us can pack up our bags and go home." The chief inspector's message to Tony Blair's ministers is clear. His mission is to ensure that every boast of progress is tempered by reminders of the children for whom this government has failed to engineer a better future.