Profile: Chris Woodhead - Mr Standards slips

Michael McMahon on why the Chief Inspector of Schools suddenly looks vulnerable

FEW FIGURES have more closely embodied the spirit of our age than Christopher Woodhead, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools. Appointed by the Tories, confirmed in office by New Labour, and famously awarded a 40 per cent pay increase last year, Chris Woodhead has hitherto occupied an unassailable niche in the contemporary cathedral of political wisdom, with politicians of every hue jostling to light votive candles at his feet. Reverenced by high Tories and low Tories alike, and virtually beatified in the Daily Mail, Mr Woodhead, 52, is every inch the saloon-bar hero, in a nation that has very few public bars left. Only one group has steadfastly and sullenly refused to subscribe to his cult: all those teachers whose profession he has been so firmly policing. And he has been admired all the more deeply for that.

Now, however, the man whose name had become a byword for excellence and probity is under attack. The chief inspector is himself being inspected, and with a merciless scrutiny which most teachers, at least, will find more than a little ironic. A chance question and an unguarded response - in which, as reported in the Independent yesterday, he refused to condemn affairs between teachers and pupils unequivocally - have won him the sort of publicity he could have done without and put his job on the line. Some may feel it was an accident waiting to happen.

When Mr Woodhead was appointed in 1993, he marked the occasion by writing an article for the Daily Mail which appeared under the title "Sack the useless teachers!". Ever since, his chief inspectorial career has been measured out in headlines of similar force. His early assertion that there were 15,000 incompetent teachers in our schools may have been a statistically questionable projection, but the figure was printed on all the front pages, and remained fixed in the public consciousness. Teachers have hated him ever since, as have the academics he named and "shamed" in an attack that even he admitted was "intemperate", calling them "the real heart of darkness" whose thinking had destroyed the life chances of so many children. And members of the all-party parliamentary education group have hardly been well disposed to him since they got the sharp edge of his tongue when they dared to suggest that his style might be too confrontational. "Angry schools inspector tells MPs to do their homework", ran one headline.

The man in the unflattering public gaze this weekend was brought up on the south-westerly fringe of suburban London, the only son of an accountant and a secretary. He went to Wallington Grammar, where he became school captain and captain of athletics - though, surprisingly for one for whom statistics and figures would later be so important, he got only a grade 6 (the lowest possible pass) in maths. He read English at Bristol, where he developed a passion for rock-climbing - a testing, exhilarating challenge that he still enjoys today. It's a demanding pursuit, requiring energy, courage and the ability to trust one's own judgement - qualities he also displays when he is at work. After university he became a teacher, a teacher-trainer, an adviser, an inspector, and various ranks of education officer on the way to what is, if not perhaps the peak of his career, then certainly the acknowledged summit of his ambition. His first marriage, which produced a daughter, Tamsin, ended in divorce; he has lived with his present partner, Ruth Miskin, for the past 12 years. Ms Miskin is a strong character, too. She is a primary school head, whose expertise was called upon in drawing up the Government's "literacy hour" strategy (and was invited, it just so happens, to star in the accompanying training video), but who has refused to implement the scheme in her own school.

Chris Woodhead's present difficulties stem from allowing himself to be drawn into the debate surrounding the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, which provides penalties of up to two years' imprisonment for teachers who engage in "any sexual activity" with pupils under 18 at their school. (Existing guidelines already suggest that teachers engaging in "inappropriate" relationships with pupils should be banned.) In a question-and-answer session following a lecture to student teachers and academics at Exeter University, he was asked whether 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," he said, "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."

The tone of his comments was quite different from most of his other pronouncements. There, for a moment, was a glimpse of the real human being behind the public persona of the teachers' daemon.

The Liberal Democrat education spokesman, Phil Willis, said, "This is typical Woodhead. He has set himself up as judge, jury and social commentator on everything to do with teaching, and that is unhealthy." But it is not typical Woodhead at all - and nor was his backtracking when the fall-out from his comments began. "In most circumstances I think a teacher who has a relationship with a pupil should be barred from the profession," he told the Independent. "I would not have any problems with the new legislation." And he said that his remarks had to be seen in context. Moreover, he also said, "I don't think it is the job of a chief inspector to pontificate about these things."

But the context in which his remarks are to be understood is rather wider than the meeting in which that question arose. Not since 1995, when the News of the World asked him about his nine-year relationship with Amanda Johnston, one of his ex-pupils from the Gordano School in Bristol, has Mr Woodhead been put so well and truly on the spot. Then his lawyers put out a statement: "Chris Woodhead did not have a sexual relationship or any improper relationship with Amanda Johnston when he was a teacher and she was a pupil. They did have a relationship a long time afterwards, when they met in Oxford in 1976. Chris was by then separated from his wife. Amanda had moved to Oxford, not knowing Chris was there. He had not behaved in any manner which will call into question his integrity. In any event he does not purport to be the guardian of social and moral behaviour."

But he is, of course, the national guardian of educational behaviour, and it is by his impact on English teaching and learning that history will judge him. He has certainly made his mark. He is not only the first chief inspector whose name - and face - are known by the general public; he is, according to the recent judgement of the Observer, the 208th most influential person in Britain. For Mr Woodhead is not just the appointed defender of our national educational standards: for many he has come to personify the very word "standards" itself. He has become an icon: a kind of contemporary St George, slaying for us all the dragon of vacuous trendiness that menaces our children and their future.

Ironically, when Mr Woodhead was a teacher himself he was hardly known for his conservatism, and those who knew him then remember a child-centred, optimistic idealist. And much of his subsequent career was spent in the educational establishment the self-referential cosiness of which he has lately so sturdily challenged. Now Chris Woodhead speaks of that part of his life as if he had been a stalking horse, biding his time until promotion gave him the chance to blow the whistle on his erstwhile colleagues. Perhaps he just learnt from his experience.

However he got there, though, his present position has become increasingly controversial. According to a previous chief inspector, Professor Eric Bolton, Mr Woodhead's role is now "out of control", for he "can range where he will and justify his pronouncements by selecting as he pleases from the huge mass of inspection data that now exists". And it's not just his power or his confrontational style that is under attack. His methodology and even his efficiency are increasingly loudly challenged. Last year the National Association of Head Teachers (which had, in 1997, passed a unanimous vote of no confidence in him) surveyed members whose schools had been recently inspected and found that in 25 per cent of them grades were awarded to teachers for lessons they hadn't even taught. Schools and teachers are not allowed such margins of error. If a quarter of our schools issued pupils with detailed end-of-term reports in subjects they hadn't studied, the outcry could be imagined.

Such indignation could hardly be as clamorous, though, as that which has been unleashed by Mr Woodhead's remarks about affairs between teachers and pupils - words that, had they been made by someone with fewer enemies, might have been talked down to seem merely ill chosen.

Chris Woodhead has got himself into a mess. However "experiential" it might be for him, or "educative" for us, it might also yet cost him his job.

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