Mr Woodhead's crass comment exposes an education system at war

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The Independent Culture
TODAY, IN anticipation of the Government's inevitable introduction of grammar and syntax hour, we will study neologisms, starting with to Hoddle (vb. intrans), meaning to speak wantonly on a sensitive subject in such a way as to raise Cain. Note also "Woodheaded" (coll. trans): to be pilloried for a Hoddling offence when the real reason for antipathy lies elsewhere.

Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, underwent a major attack of the Hoddles when he responded to a question about teachers embarking on relationships with their pupils with the view that these could be "experiential and educative", a description that made them sound like a suitable addition to the National Curriculum. The irony of Mr Woodhead's sudden lapse into edu-jargon will not be lost on those whom he has robustly attacked for importing waffly relativism into schooling.

But people are rarely just the sum total of their ideological views, or rather if, like John Redwood, they are, we reserve a specially vibrant British distaste for them. Few of us lead copy-book lives in which our actions and our ideals are entirely coherent with one another. It is far from uncommon for the first-time-round home-breaker to become the most vociferous defender of marriage, while former scarlet women end up pontificating about the need for sexual continence in the younger generation.

Thus the stentorian imposer of high standards let slip a certain confusion about the toleration of teacher-student relations. Of course, Mr Woodhouse did not mean what he said. He messed up. "If I had known what was going to happen, I would have put it differently," he said later, as people do when the full consequences of having Hoddled hit home.

As it was, he found himself faced in public with a question on which he knew that he was vulnerable, having had a liaison with a former female pupil some years ago. Both deny that their relationship was improper when she was at school, but their closeness was noticed and disapproved of by staff. Before there is an affair, there is the pre-affair - the thrilling discovery of mutual attraction and inordinate pleasure in each other's company. That can be just as disruptive an influence in the classroom or the workplace as a fully fledged sexual fling.

Mr Woodhead was thus placed in an invidious position. If he said that teachers should keep their paws off their pupils, he was open to charges of hypocrisy. If he said otherwise, he was on the wrong side of the rules of every LEA and the private sector.

My hunch is that the question was asked by a trainee teacher in the knowledge that it would cause problems for a man who enjoys (and that really is the right word) demonic status among state-sector teachers. The more they loathe him, the more Mr Woodhead is convinced that he is doing a good job. Such is the depressing spectacle of the British education system at war with itself, with the nation's pupils forcibly enlisted as the poor bloody infantry.

But you cannot be the fearsome unveiler of malpractice and ineptitude and not be prepared to be unveiled yourself. The Chief Inspector, having dished out some harsh and judgemental words over time, seems to have been entirely unprepared for his past to be used against him now. Sitting in judgement on others does tend to make people rather cavalier about their own weaknesses.

I have no doubt that Mr Woodhead's comments will lead to a concerted campaign to get rid of him. I am equally sure that many of his enemies will gun for him for all the wrong reasons. At Ofsted, he has pressed home the long-overdue message that standards in Britain's schools must rise and that the culture of excuses in the classroom, the unions and the LEAs must end. It is pure malevolence to suggest that he should not continue in his post because he put his foot so squarely in his mouth on the subject of teacher-pupil relations.

Beyond the ad hominem argument, the more consequential debate about which relationships are improper and at what age is about to be erupt anew, thanks to the Age of Consent (Amendment) Bill which seeks to make illegal sexual relations between those in positions of "direct responsibility" with charges under the age of 18.

Tony Blair is committed by his manifesto to equalising the age of heterosexual and homosexual consent: fine. That is what we expect an enlightened centre- left government to do. But it does demand rather more bravery than Mr Blair has so far shown. He got a sticky ride in the Lords and from concerned back-benchers about the status of 16-18-year-old boys. So far, so predictable. He should have pressed on regardless, saying that it is up to the children's homes, the young offenders' units and the schools to enact the commonsensical rule that staff should not sleep with their charges by making it a sackable offence to do so.

But the Prime Minister is acutely aware that a lot of middle England is not as socially liberal as New Labour, and the polls remain heavily against him on this sensitive matter. So a panicky amendment was added to the Bill, stating that sex between 16-year-olds is all right, whereas sex between some categories of people over the age of 18 and some 16- or 17-year-olds with whom they are "in a position of trust" is not acceptable.

The idea is to create an equivalent of Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit, a drawing that can look like one animal or the other, depending on the viewer's perspective. The Age of Consent duck-rabbit is intended to sound liberal to sympathetic audiences, while introducing an illiberal clause at the end to satisfy critics. The result will be unworkable, productive of anomalies and tensions. The specification of categories goes far beyond the reach of conventional consent legislation in democracies. It is open to challenge on the grounds that criminal law should be clear enough for individuals to know whether or not it applies to them. It should certainly avoid the use of terms or categories such as "positions of trust", which are open to differing interpretations.

How broadly is the status of trust defined? Can a care worker sleep with a young man in another home? If a 16-year-old male is in need of protection from some adults, then he is clearly not considered to be an adult himself, in which case, he should not be considered mature enough to have legal sexual intercourse at all. Not for the first time, this Government has been seduced by lust for legislation and is seeking to enshrine in law things that should be left to non-statutory arrangements.

The belated fuss about Mr Woodhead's old flame is a reminder that the intersection of professional responsibility and sexual attraction remains a minefield through which we should tread with the utmost caution and fore-thought. The last thing it needs is the destructive detonation of a bad law.