'Chris Woodhead was a force for enlightenment in schools'

'Teachers should be ashamed they didn't have the courage to fight for him. He offered the best educational advice we we're going to get'
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The Independent Online

Once upon a time the British left-wing loved ideas. In the long-forgotten days before focus groups and polling, thought preceded action. This process gave radicals a chance. It made the jibe about the Tories being the stupid party true. It produced a great, reforming, Labour government.

Once upon a time the British left-wing loved ideas. In the long-forgotten days before focus groups and polling, thought preceded action. This process gave radicals a chance. It made the jibe about the Tories being the stupid party true. It produced a great, reforming, Labour government.

Back then, when politicians believed in ends not means, a policy was never sacred. It was just a way of achieving good. And if it did not work it was the policy, not the ambition to improve society, which was abandoned. In that atmosphere Chris Woodhead would have been regarded as a hero. So what went wrong?

The question matters, because until those who call themselves progressives have the courage to see beyond the calumnies that have been paraded as truths about Her Majesty's departing Chief Inspector of Schools, they will never understand how hard Chris Woodhead battled for social justice, nor will they grasp how enlightened, liberal and compassionate he is.

Sharp intakes of breath in every staffroom in the land. Woodhead a radical? A liberal? A supporter of social justice? Never. Surely he was a vicious Tory infiltrator sustained in office by a Prime Minister with suspect views on education?

Well sit up and face the front. There will be a test later. I know Chris Woodhead, I have listened to him talk about education in the privacy of an empty restaurant. I have seen the man beneath the monster of febrile imaginations. I know what Chris Woodhead believes and how passionately he believes it.

Edinburgh 1999. The Scotsman had organised a conference to discuss ideas about education. Most of the delegates who heard Chris Woodhead's contribution were teachers. Many were stunned. How could the hate-figure they had come not to know but certainly to loathe, be so engaging? How could he be so dedicated to the needs and rights of children? Because that is what Woodhead was both in public and in private. He outlined a vision for a better system of state education. It was neither élitist nor intolerant.

So what would a Woodhead-designed education system look like? He is certain that education must function as a means to achieve social justice. He advocates formal teaching because he knows it works. He sees it provided in private schools throughout the UK, and he understands that it is why they deliver good results. He grasps the obvious truth that if state schools are to compete they must do the same and do it better. The alternative is an ever-widening gap between good (private) schools and bad (state) ones.

He would prefer to see the independent sector wither on the vine. He would prefer to see state schools performing so well that only snobs would contemplate paying fees. And he believes that is possible. But not while the one-size fits all model of Sixties' comprehensivisation is touted as a solution to the very problems it has created.

Does Chris Woodhead believe in selection? Yes. In the same way that Tony Blair, Clement Attlee, and good socialists throughout Europe believe in it. Woodhead believes flexible, sensitive, selection - selection with second chances - is the best way to replace rationing by parental income with education that meets the needs of the child. Beyond that, he also knows that Tony Blair believes it too. When Chris Woodhead spoke in Edinburgh he was certain that selection would feature as a plank in Blair's agenda for a second term. This was not wishful-thinking. It was a clear and accurate reflection of Blair's own views.

Nobody would be happier than Chris Woodhead if the "progressive" philosophies of Sixties' educationalists worked. But they don't. So, like any competent manager, he looks elsewhere for answers.

After the Edinburgh conference I was besieged by teachers and local education authority officials who said, "I couldn't possibly admit this in the staff room but..." One said, "I thought he only cared about the brightest children - but he obviously cares about them all."

That clinched it for me. It has been impossible to find teachers prepared to put their heads above the parapet and admit plain facts they acknowledge to their friends and colleagues every day of the year. Staffrooms do contain incompetents. They do contain those who are just sitting out the years until retirement. No, they arenot the majority and theyare not all irredeemable.But some of them are - like some members of every other profession.

Chris Woodhead was a voice for the hard-working majority in our schools. He wanted them to be treated like professionals. And, yes, that must involve appraisal and the risk of redundancy.

Teachers should be ashamed they didn't have the courage to fight for him. He was a force for enlight-enment in schools, a true liberal reformer. If thePrime Minister acts on his own convictions he will implement Chris Woodhead's ideas. If the Tories get there first it will not be because the ideas are reactionary, but because New Labour has had the best educational advice it was ever going to get.

Tim Luckhurst is a former editor of 'The Scotsman'

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