Education: An inspector calls a halt to ideological battles: The man who will be the judge of standards in Britain's schools has no shortage of ideas about how to improve them. Judith Judd reports

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The Independent Online
Chris Woodhead, the new head of the body that regulates school inspections - one of the most powerful jobs in education - says he knows how it feels to fail as a teacher. He once struggled to teach Shakespeare to a group of fifth-year girls who spent most of the lesson putting on make-up and reading teenage magazines.

'Romeo and Juliet worked well and so did some work on their own experience based on Macbeth's line, 'To know the deed 'twere best to know thyself.' All young people need to have an opportunity to read literature, but my experience convinced me they also need something immediately relevant to their own experience. That is why I am interested in developing vocational qualifications.'

Mr Woodhead, currently chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA), who was appointed last week as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools, taught for seven years. He also reorganised Shropshire County Council's inspection system after one of its schools was condemned in one of the first HMI reports to be published.

So he claims to know how inspections work and from both sides of the fence and promises he will not jump in with changes at the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), which he will head. But his agenda makes it clear that the office will not stand still under his stewardship. He will look, for instance, at the present cycle of four-yearly inspections for every school. 'Would it be better,' he asks, 'to concentrate inspection resources on schools that seem not to be succeeding', based on national curriculum test results? These might be visited every two years while others were only inspected every six. This would also help the Government in its battle to persuade schools to complete the tests.

He is aware that many teachers and heads find the new inspections threatening and that the bottom line is punitive: schools that fail to turn themselves round may be taken over by teams of experts, knowns as education associations. 'The process needs to be as unthreatening as possible, but an element of threat is not necessarily a bad thing. I personally respond to threats. The education system has been immune to any kind of threat for too long.'

He supports the need for education associations to take over a small minority of schools but also believes that we are not doing enough to celebrate the achievement of good schools.

When he starts his new job in September he plans to ask questions about the criteria on which schools are judged and suggests there might be more emphasis on what happens in the classroom and less on buildings and money.

'At the moment, inspectors are expected to comment on every possible aspect of school life. There is an argument that schools are about teaching and that inspection should focus on these and bring in management, resources and accommodation only when they are relevant. I want to make sure the searchlight is directed at what is central to school life.'

He adds that it is not a question of excluding judgments about values and pastoral care, but of homing in on what should be at the heart of education. In primary schools, whose inspections begin this autumn, that would mean paying particular attention to literacy and numeracy.

But it is important, he believes, that schools should not be compelled to conform to particular methods and theories to be rated as good. 'It is vitally important that Ofsted does not come to represent an orthodoxy as to what constitutes good practice.'

Inspectors need to be free of the various 'fads, fashions and orthodoxies' that beset education. He hopes Ofsted's new inspectors, many of whom are former local authority inspectors and HMIs, will offer a fresh vision.

Lay inspectors, he adds, have a valuable part to play in this. 'We have to get away from the simplistic dichotomy between traditional and progressive teaching. Good teaching involves a range of methods. It is important for a teacher to be able to stand in front of the class - supposedly a traditional approach - and organise group work - supposedly progressive.'

He has promised discussions with schools and inspectors before he makes up his mind about his ideas. It may be a lively debate.

(Photograph omitted)