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26 April 1999

The real Chris Woodhead scandal

Francis Beckett blows the whistle on the chief inspector: not for his sex life, but for the damage h

By Francis Beckett

David Blunkett badly wants to fire the chief schools inspector, Chris Woodhead, but Tony Blair won’t let him. When the Observer revealed that Woodhead may have had an affair with a pupil while he was a teacher, then lied on oath about it, “a spokesman for Blunkett” was quoted as saying that the chief inspector’s days could be numbered. But the next day Blunkett himself was quoted backing Woodhead to the hilt and comprehensively (and rather nastily) rubbishing Woodhead’s ex-wife.

The first statement accurately reflected what Blunkett was saying and thinking. The second statement seems to have followed a very awkward interview with the Prime Minister. Blunkett may still get his way in the end. If he does, he will be forced to tell us all about how we have been tragically deprived of Woodhead’s “crusade for standards”. The truth, and Blunkett knows it, is that Woodhead is the greatest single obstacle to higher standards in our schools, and that is why he should be fired.

There are many reasons for that. Here is one. Last autumn Birmingham found that there was a sudden and dramatic increase in the number of the city’s primary schools that, in the judgement of Woodhead’s Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), were failing. At the time, Woodhead and Birmingham’s chief education officer, Tim Brighouse, were joint vice-chairs of the government’s standards task force. The arrangement was not a happy one. Woodhead and Brighouse disliked each other. Woodhead, in a lecture delivered shortly before the general election, had mocked Brighouse’s belief that teachers deserved a big salary rise. He wasn’t going to “go native”, said the man who had himself demanded (and got) a 30 per cent salary rise to £115,000 a year.

There is no evidence of any connection between the treatment meted out to Birmingham schools and Woodhead’s well-known desire to be rid of Brighouse. Even so, several Birmingham heads felt they would get a better deal from Ofsted if Brighouse left the working party (which he eventually did, saying he wanted to spend more time in Birmingham). That speaks volumes about the distrust, bordering on contempt, that many teachers feel about Ofsted under Woodhead’s leadership. If they do his bidding, it is from fear, not respect.

When Birmingham education authority itself was inspected, its officials were told that they could not be given any feedback until Woodhead came out of a hospital stay. But Woodhead, they pointed out, was not inspecting them. They claim he interfered with the inspectors’ conclusions, and some potentially embarrassing correspondence is in the hands of the parliamentary select committee investigating Ofsted.

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Woodhead has two great talents. The first is for going above people’s heads to their bosses. He did it as an education officer in Devon. He did it as deputy chief executive of the National Curriculum Council, when he opened his lines to the then education secretary, Kenneth Clarke. He has done it again by forming a close relationship with Blair and cutting out Blunkett.

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His second talent is for providing the media with the simplistic right-wing prejudices that make good headlines and good first paragraphs. He once told a press conference there were 15,000 failing teachers. The figure was meaningless. His inspectors gave grade five, the lowest, to 2 per cent of observed primary school lessons. Woodhead assumed that anybody who taught just one grade five lesson must be a “failing teacher”, regardless of whether they happened to have a bad morning or were terrified by the looming presence of an inspector.

This is unforgivable – not because there are no failing teachers, but because there are. As Woodhead frequently says, if they cannot be turned into good teachers, they ought to be firmly encouraged to earn their living in some other way. It is especially important in primary schools, where a child has one teacher for most subjects. When that teacher is not up to it, the whole year is wasted.

But Woodhead has no more idea than I have how many failing teachers there are. The only advantage in giving a simple number is that there is a headline in it for him. The result is that any parent who tries to suggest to a school that a class teacher is not doing the best for their child will hear the teaching profession’s weary defences creak into place. If teachers were allowed sometimes to feel good about what they do, they would find it easier to take well-intentioned criticism. And it is precisely because Woodhead’s behaviour has undermined professional confidence in the inspection system that heads and governors feel unable to act on its conclusions. The chief inspector’s crusade against bad teachers actually helps them hold on to their jobs.

Now consider Woodhead’s views on class sizes. He has told the world that reductions in class size cost more money than they are worth, a view that well suits political masters who do not want to pay for more teachers. But what is the evidence? In November 1995, Woodhead issued a press release that began: “An analysis by Ofsted . . . concludes that there is no clear link between the size of a class and the quality of teaching within it.” Woodhead knows the first paragraph is what matters in journalism. Only at the end of the release do we read: “Except in the early years, reductions in class size of one, two or three are not likely to have an educational benefit which justifies the increase in public expenditure.” But reductions of more than three make a very considerable difference – why otherwise do people pay high fees for small classes in the private sector?

Then there are Woodhead’s views on teaching methods. In his commentary on the 1994-95 Ofsted report he wrote: “Inspectors’ evidence shows that whole-class teaching figures significantly in seven-tenths of lessons judged to be good.” The casual reader might suppose that whole-class teaching (which Woodhead supports) has been proved to be better than group work (which he considers is only done by “trendy teachers”). Nothing of the sort had been proved.

But Woodhead despises research in any case. In a 1997 lecture, he said: “We already spend some £50-60 million every year on educational research and I, for one, think that we see precious little benefit . . . We need to be constantly on our guard against the self-interest of the expert.” The following year he commissioned a study of educational research from Professor James Tooley of Manchester University, a right-wing educationalist who advocates privatisation of all schools. Tooley looked at some educational research, pronounced it not much good but added that generalisations could not be drawn. This wasn’t good enough for Woodhead. Tooley, he said, had shown that much educational research “is, on this analysis, at best no more than an irrelevance and a distraction”.

Woodhead once recalled listening to a lecture on primary education, and thinking what rubbish it was. But the teachers who heard it reacted quite differently. “They were deeply impressed by the wealth of learning . . . More than one said to me that it had just reminded him once again how little he knew about the business of teaching children.” Woodhead’s conclusion was not that he was mistaken, but that the teachers had been duped. And that, says someone who has worked closely with him, is his problem. “He is a man of absolute certainty, and that is dangerous in a chief inspector.”

The things he is certain about tended to be the sort of things the Tory government wanted to hear: phonics good, real books bad; whole-class teaching good, group work bad; didactic teaching good, child-centred teaching bad; and so on. He rightly complains about the way British education debate divides into two armed camps, one of them arbitrarily marked “right wing”, the other “left wing”. Yet he has firmly dug himself into the trenches on the side marked “right wing”.

The educational results of Woodhead are dire. Ofsted does important research, but Woodhead, by turning its conclusions into easy headlines, causes people to distrust it and so destroys its value. He has helped to create a climate where teachers are despised, to the detriment of the respect they need from parents and children.

“We are running out of teachers,” says one educational administrator. “Already the government has been forced to tighten up on early retirement and sickness retirement to stop teachers from leaving in droves. Teachers say: why should we go through all the misery of teaching in inner-city schools when we know we’re going to be named and shamed every few years?”

Ministers are miserably aware that all their educational initiatives will be blunted until Woodhead goes. For a few happy hours, after the Observer story, David Blunkett thought that the Prime Minister would at last allow him to get rid of the chief inspector. True, teachers would have to read fawning obsequies in the press about the tragedy of losing the only man in Britain with the courage to demand high standards. Lazy education correspondents would again parrot the phrase “crusade for standards” as though nobody else in education gives a damn about standards, but at least it would be for the last time.

But it seems likely that the Prime Minister wants to support his friend Chris Woodhead as he supported his friend Bill Clinton. Blunkett will have to tell him the real reason for firing Woodhead: that hopes of a better education service, with motivated, high-quality and confident teachers, are doomed as long as he stays.

If ever an issue was worth resigning over, this is it.