The Government Inspector

or How Mr Woodhead slipped up in the blackboard jungle
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Chris Woodhead loves to take chances. He is a rock climber and a risk-taker. This is a man, after all, who marked his appoint-ment as Chief Inspector of Schools by writing an article entitled "Sack The Useless Teachers!". He courts controversy as ardently as anyone who lives for the duel. But even he must be wishing that his current battle with his former wife over whether he had an affair with a sixth-form pupil 23 years ago would just go away. But it will not. The personal has become professional has become political. The ex-wife is on the radio. The Education Secretary is examining the divorce documents. The columnists are taking sides. The teachers want an inquiry. And, most worrying of all, the Prime Minister yesterday said that the Chief Inspector had his full confidence.

The man himself has gone silent. This is uncharacteristic. He is, his office said, on holiday. Really? But the Easter break was last week. There was a pause and a flurry. Yes, definitely on holiday. Besides, he had said everything he had to say. His former wife is not on holiday. Nor has she had her full say. Yesterday, for instance, she was on the Today programme. "He brought this up," she said. "He brought it into the public domain at the beginning of February. It was all over the papers. I haven't brought it up. I'm just trying to get at the truth," said Cathy Woodhead. She believes Tony Blair should be looking at the truth, too. "I'm afraid that anyone who allows lies to carry on cannot be trusted."

Some see this as the work of a woman scorned. They say that Cathy Woodhead, who is also a mountaineer, is just a more muscular version of Margaret Cook. In the end, Margaret didn't get her man and why should Cathy? But such a comparison doesn't hold up, at least in terms of timing. If Ms Woodhead is seeking revenge, it has been served not only cold but absolutely frozen. And she hasn't written a book, cried her crocodile tears or haggled over the serialisation, though her articles in the Mail on Sunday have been deadly. Now, she says, she only wants the truth. "I'm sorry, but I consider that telling the truth is one of the most important things we have," she says.

Of course, the Chief Inspector insists that he is telling the truth and that his affair with Amanda Johnston began when she was no longer his pupil at Gordano School near Bristol. After all, the allegations are hardly new. The News of the World planned to publish them in 1995 and was told by his solicitor that they had their dates wrong. His former wife said that she kept quiet because their daughter Tammy would suffer first. Now divorce documents would appear to support the former wife's point of view. Last Sunday, The Observer quoted a solicitor's note from 1976 that said Woodhead "particularly did not want her name to be disclosed, because she was a sixth-former when the adultery started and it was understood the teaching profession were [sic] averse to teachers committing adultery with sixth-form pupils". In February 1977, Mr Woodhead signed a statement saying he wanted to keep her name secret for "professional reasons".

So what are we to think? Should Chris Woodhead resign from his pounds 115,000 a year job? Should there be an inquiry? If so, should Mr Woodhead be treated as any teacher would and be suspended while it goes on? And what is his real problem: the affair, the lie, or both? Does it matter that new legislation debated yesterday in Parliament would mean that teachers who have relationships with sixth-form pupils will face up to two years in jail? It is the kind of thing that is only believable because it is fact. No novelist would dare to think it.

The columnists are delighted. The family feud is now a matter for public debate and opinions are whizzing like paper aeroplanes in an untended classroom. David Aaronovitch says it is a professional, not a private matter, for the man whose zeal for school standards is matched by his helmet-like haircut. Libby Purves has called for an inquiry. Melanie Phillips, the scourge of single mothers, has jumped to his defence. And John Clare of The Daily Telegraph yesterday wrote these words: "So - still supposing Mr Woodhead lied - would that be a sufficient reason for him to be hounded from office? Setting the triviality of the lie against the weight of his achievements would suggest not. It is not fanciful to argue that the life chances of tens of thousands of children have been improved by his actions." Try explaining that logic to a child who asks if lying is wrong.

Cathy Woodhead is wrong about one thing, however. Mr Woodhead did not bring this into the public domain. Or at least that was never his intention when he responded to a question from a student teacher at the University of Exeter in January. It was at this forum, with no journalist in sight, that Mr Woodhead was asked if teachers who had relationships with pupils had any place in the education system. His response was equivocal: "As adults, or relative adults, we have a responsibility to those who are younger than us and therefore it isn't a good idea at all, but I don't think necessarily that a teacher should be automatically drummed out of the profession. I think human beings can get themselves into messes and I think those messes can be experiential and educative on both sides."

It was just one of several questions and answers and Mr Woodhead must have thought little of it. The man who loves risks and is often described as arrogant probably thought there was none. He has since hinted darkly that it may have been a conspiracy, but even he should have noticed that there were 200-odd people in the room. And he certainly must have known that the session was being taped, both officially as part of the course and unofficially by several students. One of the tapes was put in the library. In a matter of weeks, The Independent had the story. When called for his comments, he immediately realised the situation but still came out fighting. He said he believed the questioner had been troubled, though in such a large gathering that seems very intuitive indeed. He added: "In most circumstances, I think a teacher who has a relationship with a pupil should be barred from the profession." He said his remarks had to be seen in context. "I don't think it is the job of the chief inspector to pontificate about these things."

If only he had followed his own advice. It wasn't long before others remembered the News of the World story. His former wife heard the news while in a climbers' hut in Snowdonia. "I was with a group of friends from the Pinnacle Club, the national women's rock climbing club," she would write later. She had spent the day on "an invigorating ridge walk, battling through a gale which at times threatened to knock us to the ground". A friend, however, had been listening to the radio.

"At first I couldn't believe what I was hearing," Ms Woodhead said. "Then I was simply incensed. For more than 20 years, I have lived with the knowledge that Chris had a sexual relationship with a pupil where he taught. I learned that for certain in April 1976, when he told me he was having an affair with a girl named Amanda Johnston... We had been married for six years and our daughter Tammy was 11 months old." Before she had kept quiet. This time she didn't. "Yes, I thought, while you were away being educative and experiential with someone else, I was looking after our baby daughter." She decided to "set the record straight" and, in pure ex-wife mode now, added: "While we were married I allowed myself to be undermined by Chris. I gave him sole responsibility for my happiness. Twenty-three years on, I realise he is still exerting control over me and I am no longer prepared to be manipulated by him. I feel I have protected him long enough."

Chris Woodhead's many enemies will have read that with more than a little joy in their hearts. This will include many teachers and academics. The Chief Inspector, who many blame for making their lives a misery, taunting them in headline after headline, was finally being inspected himself. His friends are far less plentiful, but with names like Prince Charles and Tony Blair you don't need a lot. Until now they have backed him against what Education Secretary David Blunkett has called "vile" allegations. But now the Department of Education is using fewer such adjectives. Mr Blunkett is now inspecting the divorce documents.

It is all starting to have an inevitable momentum to it. But, as in so many cases of public morality and privacy recently, the problem is not so much the actual event as the cover-up. A lie is still a sackable offence, despite the views of The Daily Telegraph. "The issue is about a lie," says Alice Mahon, the Labour MP who has put down an Early Day Motion and called for him to resign. "This has nothing to do with his private life."

And so the time is nearing when it is time to quit bluffing. It is no longer a game, even for those who love and understand danger. "If, at the bottom of a rock climb, you worry about a difficult move at 50ft or 100ft, you are never going to get off the ground," Mr Woodhead has said. "Psychologically, you have got to take it stage by stage. Also, you have got to hold your nerve, and this is applicable to the kind of work I do." And that, certainly, is true.