Education Letter: Ofsted is like the Stasi

Opinions on girls and science, literacy and numeracy tests, Chris Woodhead, the role of research, and falling academic standards

AS LORD Acton put it at the turn of the century: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The remarks leading to Glenn Hoddle's downfall, for publicly giving voice to his own confused thoughts about the meaning of life, are as nothing compared with the highest man in education in the land giving his tacit approval to teachers' sexual relations with sixth formers by calling such affairs "educative".

The problem with Chris Woodhead's seemingly unassailable position as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools is that he thinks that he can say what he likes and get away with it. By recently extending the Chief Inspector's contract for another five years, the Secretary of State for Education gave licence to Mr Woodhead's habit of making highly controversial remarks in an ill-judged effort to demonstrate New Labour's determination not to shirk on standards, and to get tough with teachers by having a hard man at the helm.

Mr Woodhead presides over a shambles at Ofsted, where market forces have driven the contract prices for school inspections down to such ludicrously low levels that a team inspector now earns little more as a daily supply teacher in London. His efforts to try and police this chaos by sending in hit squads from his own office to terrorise both schools and inspection teams with their high-handed, arbitrary and idiosyncratic pronouncements, like a latter Stasi picking off dissidents, is failing dismally, since the good, the bad and the indifferent within the inspection service are being randomly felled for not toeing the party line.

Readers of Russian history will note some resonance with the tactics abroad during the dark days of Stalinism. Middle ranking civil servants, factory and farm managers were given increasingly impossible targets to reach with diminishing resources, and the penalty for failure was death. Just so now with Ofsted - in the last year alone, the average contract price for inspecting a school has fallen by more than 30 per cent, yet the bureaucratic demands for uniformity multiply, and the penalty for failure is professional death.

Meanwhile, the calibre of the people prepared to undertake inspection falls. Few people - other than retired headteachers, local authority advisers, hobbyists, or those of independent means - are now prepared to work for such meagre returns for such stressful and personally damaging work.

PAT LIGHTFOOT

Attleborough, Norfolk

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