Saying sorry seems to be a very hard lesson to learn

Like so many people with a mission, Woodhead has mistaken self- belief for personal infallibility
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT IS the fashion to claim that we live in an age of blissful consensus, when there are no longer ideological battles to be fought and all politicians have to worry about is keeping the verges of pragmatism tidy. It is an illusion. The clashes are still fought as bitterly as ever, just in different places.

If you doubt this, consider the tribal emotion generated by Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, after accusations that he covered up the truth about the starting date of an affair with a former pupil. Foes of Ofsted [the Office of Standards in Education] are predisposed to see in its head a shameless modern-day Tartuffe. Mr Woodhead's educational allies defend his reputation in the last ditch of credibility.

Truth is the first casualty in any war; consistency is the second. The claims against Mr Woodhead wrought some strange and wonderful changes among the nation's moral standard-bearers. The same family fundamentalists who want the Government to reintroduce the public stoning of adulterers, were prepared to make an exception for the chief inspector. It is an openness of spirit they would be unlikely to extend to the head of a Bolshie teachers' union, or the head of a left-wing local education authority accused of having slept with a pupil and who subsequently lied about the dates.

Meanwhile, Mr Woodhead's enemies are dancing the conga round the staff rooms at the prospect of an excuse to be rid of him. In this war of attrition, any excuse for a scalp will do. Doug McAvoy, facing a left-wing challenge to his leadership of the National Union of Teachers, put the boot in by calling on Mr Woodhead to go "not on personal grounds, but because he has not supported schools or teachers".

This was a cowardly assault. It used the chief inspector's troubles to attack his professional role and to appease the NUT's own eternally malcontent members. It displays teaching union politics at their most vicious and unconstructive. Not for the first time, Mr McAvoy has got it all the wrong way round.

If Mr Woodhead does resign, it should be solely on personal grounds, since these, rather than his work at Ofsted, are the reason he is under pressure.

Some of the accusations against him are ludicrous. Former colleagues whose spiritual home is evidently Salem in one of its less tolerant phases, claim that Mr Woodhead emphasised the sexual content of literature to pupils when they were studying the works of John Donne and D H Lawrence.

They might tell us how they propose teaching about the most erotic authors in the English language without mentioning sex.

"But remember," they tut, "the time he stripped to his underpants to go swimming with pupils on a school field trip?"

Shocking - there was a man clearly enjoying his job too much to be above suspicion.

When I look back to my own schooldays, it is precisely these teachers who evoke warm memories - the ones who took risks with their dignity and became just a little silly at times because they were quite happy and relaxed in the company of their pupils.

The ones I resented and would banish from the classroom for life were the sour creatures who delivered their 45 lifeless minutes on the causes of the Industrial Revolution verbatim from a book, and sloped off grimly to underachieve on behalf of their next class. Then they had the Tories to blame for their own inefficiencies; now they have Ofsted, personified in Mr Woodhead.

I wish I could leave it there - really, I do. When I survey the massed opposition to the chief inspector and the unpleasant delight taken in his troubles, my strong instinct is to defend his record and attack his detractors. But, it has to be said, Mr Woodhead has, to a great extent, been the author of his own misfortune. He seems to have been entirely unaware - or perhaps grown too arrogant in office - to see that his relationship with a woman who had been his pupil exposed him to some justified questions. To dismiss these, as he did yesterday, as mere "malice and speculation" is inadequate.

You can't be a crusader of high standards in schooling and not expect your own record to be scrutinised. It doesn't seem to have occurred to him that his past relationship was an Achilles heel, and he had better have something to say about it when it was, inevitably, raised. By explicitly denying that his involvement with Amanda Johnston began while she was at school, he provoked his ex-wife to dispute his version.

The former Mrs Woodhead had held her tongue about the break-up of her marriage, and would probably have continued to do so, had he not issued a version she found untrue and insulting. Now she has produced lawyer's letters, pre-dating Mr Woodhead's account of when he began seeing Ms Johnston, which also register his proposal that they live in a menage a trois.

Cathy Woodhead's friend, the actor Tony Robinson, has also said that he was aware of Mr Woodhead's involvement with a pupil in the spring before he left school. The chief inspector of schools' tale is looking a little bit ragged.

The mystery is why an intelligent man, accustomed to fighting dirty battles in his job, did not foresee that things would unravel in this way.

He has forced both the Prime Minister and David Blunkett [the Secretary of State for Education] into the politically dangerous position of backing his version of events, just as a contradictory and more credible one emerges. At this point, the Government needs to step up its education reforms, rather than become embroiled in an argument about the Ofsted head's distant sex life. Mr Woodhead is fast becoming a liability to the cause he has worked so hard to advance.

There was another option. He could and should have responded to questions about his past by apologising publicly to his ex-wife for the pain he caused her, and used the occasion to show that, besides a talent for abusing teachers, he also understands the weight of the responsibility they bear. But like so many people with a mission, he has mistaken self-belief for personal infallibility, a trait reinforced by his un- critical supporters.

Sorry really does seem to be the hardest word in public life. Bill Clinton used it only when he had run out of other options. Before the last election, the Tories refused to acknowledge their descent into sleaze until the electorate prompted some belated remorse.

Mr Woodhead has chosen the path of unrepentant pride. Humility might have served him better.