MPs brand schools chief Woodhead 'offensive'

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The Independent Online

A powerful committee of MPs told the chief inspector of schools yesterday that he was "offensive" and attacked him for falling short of acceptable standards of conduct in public life.

A powerful committee of MPs told the chief inspector of schools yesterday that he was "offensive" and attacked him for falling short of acceptable standards of conduct in public life.

In an acrimonious session filled with veiled insults and barbed asides, Chris Woodhead accused members of the Commons Select Committee on Education of trying to censor him. The MPs criticised Mr Woodhead for failing to reply to correspondence, and challenged him over angry dealings with other public bodies.

They called on him to justify comments on falling exam and degree standards, which are outside the remit of the Office for Standards in Education.

At one stage Mr Woodhead said to the Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, who had questioned him about exams: "I'm sorry if you find it difficult to hold those two propositions in your head." This prompted an angry intervention from the committee chairman, Barry Sheerman.

Mr Sheerman criticised Mr Woodhead's correspondence with the committee and other public bodies, saying that "people fall short of what is a proper standard of correspondence in public life".

MPs had been "unanimously concerned" at the brevity of his responses to the committee. "A range of letters we have seen use language which is regarded by many people as offensive," he said.

But Mr Woodhead defended his "direct" style and attacked Mr Sheerman for describing him as a "witch finder general" on national radio.

Mr Woodhead said: "I certainly do not feel in the least embarrassed by any letter I have put my name to. Brevity, to my mind, is a virtue."

Mr Sheerman criticised Mr Woodhead for failing to meet researchers from the Commission for Racial Equality because he was "too busy" over a four-month period. Mr Sheerman said: "I don't think that was good enough in terms of the standards in public life that I've been used to."

Mr Sheerman also criticised the chief inspector over a letter to Gurbux Singh, the new chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality. Mr Singh had written complaining that Mr Woodhead was "patronising, rude and sarcastic". Mr Woodhead had replied, "your self-righteous indignation astonishes me" and had rejected Mr Singh's complaints.

Mr Woodhead told MPs he had a duty to comment on education as he saw it, asking "do you think the chief inspector should be censored?" and insisting that it was up to MPs "to reform this monster that Parliament has created".

Mr Woodhead renewed his attack on GCSE and A-level exams, calling for the qualifications to be made more demanding. He said that changes were needed to ensure exams discriminated between the best candidates and did more to stretch the most able.

Mr Woodhead told the committee it was impossible to say whether exam standards had changed but insisted that pupils and students needed to be pushed further.

"We have got to make A-level and GCSE examinations even more demanding," he said.

Mr Woodhead repeated his criticism of "vacuous" university degrees, saying degrees such as media studies were sub-standard.

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