Blunkett seeks unity as heads attack Woodhead

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The Independent Online
David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, yesterday urged an end to cynicism and a united effort to improve schools after headteachers passed a motion of no confidence in the Chief Inspector of Schools, a member of the team he has appointed to lead the crusade to raise standards.

The National Association of Head Teachers launched a forceful attack on Chris Woodhead, head of the inspection agency Ofsted, moments before Mr Blunkett used its conference in Scarborough to announce details of a new schools standards task force. One of two vice-chairmen of the group will be Mr Woodhead, a traditionalist who provoked outrage in the education establishment after claiming that 15,000 teachers were incompetent.

Mr Blunkett called on the 500-strong conference to put aside past conflicts, saying: "Let no cynic, no sceptic, no energy sapper erode the hope that exists. To those who constantly talk about demoralisation and by doing so demoralise not only themselves but others I have one clear message ... if you are not with us then step aside, for there is no room in the education service, at whatever level, for those who do not believe we can do better. This is a can-do government and you must lead a can-do service."

His task force, aimed at identifying and spreading good practice, would "unite those of different views in a way which does not demand they compromise their own commitment but rather that they share their single-mindedness to benefit those for whom all our efforts are intended - the children of our country".

The other vice-chairman is Professor Tim Brighouse, Education Director of Birmingham, whose sympathetic attitude to teachers contrasts with the chief inspector's criticisms.

The NAHT's no-confidence vote provided the first challenge to Mr Blunkett to defend his much promoted policy of dispensing with dogma and division in education and concentrating on "what works". Although bringing Mr Woodhead into the fold is widely seen as a tactic to limit his capacity to criticise government policy, many teachers remain violently opposed to his views and uncompromising style.

Mark Newman, head of Denholme First School in Bradford, West Yorkshire, said the no-confidence motion did not go far enough. He said: "What we should be asking David Blunkett for is the dismissal of the chief inspector on the grounds that the damage he has caused to the education service, our schools and our teachers is incompatible with the post he holds."

The no-confidence motion, which called on Mr Blunkett to explain the rationale behind his decision to appoint Mr Woodhead to the task force, demonstrated the depth of hostility felt towards the chief inspector.

David Hart, general secretary of the NAHT, said that if Mr Woodhead made comments at odds with other members of the task force, the Government would have "no alternative but to get rid of him".

But Mr Blunkett said while he hoped to "settled any differences privately" he had no intention of gagging anybody. The chief inspector was independent and had the right to comment on standards.

Mr Woodhead admitted yesterday that the motion was a sign of the work which still had to be done. "It fills me with concern and a certain amount of depression - not so much about my personal position, but it indicates the distance that still has to be travelled - at least with regard to the attitudes of headteachers," he told BBC Radio 4's World at One programme.

"By and large I am optimistic," he added. "I think the climate has changed. I think there is a greater willingness to face up to difficulties and weaknesses."

Professor Brighouse, speaking on the same programme, said there was no antipathy between them. "I very much hope we can pull together as the Secretary of State says. Of course Chris and I have got different views about things - that is inevitable, but what unites us is far greater than that which divides us."