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24 July 2000

A rumble in the blackboard jungle

Francis Beckett reveals the full, hitherto untold story of the clash between Chris Woodhead, the chi

By Francis Beckett

Three years ago, the government’s school standards watchdog, Ofsted, inspected Birmingham’s education authority. At the time, Birmingham’s chief education officer, Tim Brighouse, and the Ofsted chief, Chris Woodhead, were supposed to be working together on the government’s standards task force.

It was a marriage made in hell. Brighouse believes in praising schools whenever possible; Woodhead, he thinks, is far too keen on bashing teachers. Woodhead thinks Brighouse typifies the slack liberal attitudes that have got the country into the mess it’s in today, harrumph. The two men (I am choosing my words carefully) detest and despise each other.

I can now tell you, for the first time, how this mutual loathing spilled over into the process of inspecting Birmingham. It is not an edifying tale, but it helps us to understand why most teachers, and particularly most headteachers, while they may fear Ofsted, no longer have the smallest respect for it.

The schools for which Brighouse is directly responsible in Birmingham suffer from all the disadvantages that help to bring about poor exam results (disadvantages that Woodhead is inclined to dismiss as “excuses”). About one in five of the more middle-class and more motivated children are creamed off at the age of 11 – either to grammar schools or to schools in the leafy surrounding suburbs – leaving Birmingham’s schools to teach the children from its deprived inner city.

So you would not expect Birmingham to come top in the exam league tables. And it doesn’t. But it does much better than you would expect. Research shows that, on average, the higher the percentage of a school’s pupils who are eligible for free school meals, the smaller the percentage who get five or more good GCSE passes. The Daily Express recently used this well-known fact to compile a league table of the schools that are best at defeating poverty and producing good exam results despite it. And out of the top 20 schools in its league table, no fewer than seven were Birmingham schools. Selly Park Technology College for Girls, for example, gets 52 per cent through five or more good GCSEs, which is better than any other school in Britain where more than half the pupils get free meals (the national average for such schools is 18 per cent).

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Selly Park’s figures are especially impressive when you know that two-thirds of its pupils do not speak English at home, two-thirds are from one-parent families, and more than two-thirds arrive at the school at 11 unable to read properly. Almost every room in the place is a monument to the stinginess of successive governments: peeling walls, 1950s desks with generations-old slogans carved on the tops, no sports field, no kitchen. It teaches the girls who are rejected by the nearby grammar school, most of them from poor, inner-city homes.

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The head, Wendy Davies, puts a large part of her success down to the education authority. She says that Brighouse makes sure the headteachers can learn from each other, and gives them research about what works with different groups of pupils. Each head has a mentor, from whom Davies has benefited greatly. And Brighouse celebrates every success.

So there is strong evidence that Brighouse is doing a good job and that Birmingham is a successful education authority. So why did its schools get so much critical attention from Ofsted back in 1997? Several Birmingham heads thought it was related to the bad blood between Woodhead and Brighouse. Brighouse himself was sceptical, but many schools wanted him to remove any conflict by resigning from the standards task force, which he eventually did.

Then Birmingham volunteered to be one of the first authorities to undergo an Ofsted inspection (Ofsted had just acquired the power to inspect education authorities), a sign of confidence in its achievements. Yet the Sunday Telegraph ran a front-page story suggesting that early inspection had been imposed because Birmingham was failing. The story read: “The one certainty, he [Woodhead] said, was that Birmingham, which remains near the bottom of the education league tables despite Brighouse’s efforts to improve standards, would be in the first tranche. Although Brighouse has been praised for his innovative approach, critics say there has been little impact on results.”

The local papers took the same line, which caused Brighouse trouble with his political masters. He wrote to Woodhead, enclosing the Telegraph article: “You’ll agree it’s extraordinary and must be misquoting you. It seems to compromise your independence. It would be good if there were a letter correcting the position.”

But Woodhead would not oblige. He wrote back: “I am sorry if the Sunday Telegraph piece embarrassed you . . . The spin is unhelpful, but unsurprising – not to my mind, in any sense extraordinary or an attack on my independence.”

Brighouse tried again. He asked Woodhead to confirm “in no uncertain terms” that he did not refer to the Birmingham Ofsted inspection “in the terms attributed to you by the Telegraph“. Woodhead still refused, but gave Brighouse enough for him to damp down the political concern.

But another, far more serious row then broke out. Brighouse wanted to be sure that, when the Ofsted inspection team wrote its report, Woodhead himself did not change it before publication. Since Woodhead would not be inspecting personally, Brighouse reasoned, he would not be qualified to comment.

Woodhead refused to give any such assurance. “The responsibility for the final text lies . . . with me . . . I . . . may well see drafts of the report as they emerge.” Brighouse replied: “I am bound to say that there remain suspicions at this end about impartiality, which were fuelled by the press articles which were the subject of our earlier correspondence and which persist.” The final report, he said, ought to reflect only what the inspectors themselves thought, not what Woodhead thought. “The 1997 Education Act does not appear to require its submission to you other than for you to arrange publication . . . The Act does not appear to require earlier drafts to be seen by you . . .”

Woodhead was having none of it. “I . . . am responsible for every report Ofsted publishes. The final report on . . . authorities that we inspect is a report from me.”

Brighouse repeated his earlier concerns about impartiality. “I do stress this arises solely from the nature of your reported comments in the press. A simple denial of the accuracy of the report from you (which you will recall I sought earlier) would settle that.”

Woodhead’s next letter was the frostiest yet. For the first time, he began “Dear Professor Brighouse” instead of “Dear Tim”. The legal point, about the 1997 Act, “should not be given undue weight”. The inspector leading the team in Birmingham was “a member of my staff” and “I maintain an overall responsibility for the inspection and for the report. To expect me . . . not to see the draft report and provide a quality assurance function would be to deny me the . . . means of fulfilling this overall responsibility.” However, “it may assist you to have my personal assurance that there is, of course, no question of my officiously inter-meddling”.

Brighouse decided to settle for that. But two months later, in October 1997, the row blew up again. It is routine, after any inspection, for the inspected school or authority to see a draft report, so that comments can be made and factual inaccuracies corrected. Brighouse had discovered that he and his officials were not to be allowed to see the Birmingham draft because it had first to go to Woodhead. There would be a week’s delay, because Woodhead was ill. Brighouse asked why it should be delayed to allow Woodhead to read it “if he were not going to alter it”. Woodhead’s colleague David Singleton replied that Woodhead “has no thought of altering the judgements”.

What happened to the report during the week that it was with Woodhead, we do not know. But the final report was a curious document. Its overall judgement was that Birmingham schools have done spectacularly well in recent years, and that was at least partly the work of the city’s charismatic chief education officer. It begins: “Birmingham local education authority is efficient and effective.” But it is a grudging approval, hedged by caveats that do not seem to fit into the main thrust of the report.

There are constant repetitions of one particular Woodhead obsession – the heart of the disagreement between him and Brighouse. These are generally at the ends of paragraphs, and often do not fit well with the rest of the paragraphs. One paragraph ends unexpectedly: “The celebration of success may all too easily turn into a refusal to acknowledge and confront failure.” Another ends: “It is, however, as important to confront failure as it is to celebrate success: the notion that success should be public and failure private is unacceptable to the government.” A paragraph listing the difficulties Birmingham faces ends: “In a comparatively short time, it has achieved a great deal. It remains pertinent to ask why it has not already achieved even more, and what it now needs to do to move further in the direction implied by government policy.” And again: “Most of what the authority does is attended by considerable publicity and not a little rhetoric . . . In some respects . . . there is a disjunction between the authority’s rhetoric and the reality.”

When I asked Woodhead’s office for a comment on all this, the response was: “I thought the New Statesman was vaguely interested in news rather than ancient history. When you want to talk about contemporary issues relating to the current century, give me a call.”

But the battle between Woodhead and Brighouse is of enormous contemporary importance, because these two powerful personalities have become the standard-bearers for the “traditionalist” and “liberal” camps in education’s never-ending culture wars.

The importance of what happened in Birmingham, however, goes beyond that. We do not know whether Woodhead tampered with the report. We do know that he carefully refused to undertake that he would not tamper with it, and that most teachers believe that many Ofsted reports somehow acquire a spin that is dictated by his prejudices. As long as they believe that, Ofsted inspections will lack credibility in the teaching profession – and that must be to the detriment not only of Woodhead, but of the entire school system.