So farewell then, Chris who?

'A lot of people thought Chris Woodhead was indispensable to the campaign to raise educational standards. Not true'
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The Independent Online

The importance of Chris Woodhead has been greatly exaggerated. It is a tribute to Mr Woodhead's public relations talents that his departure has been splashed across the front pages of national newspapers, despite the news agendas being awash with flood, rail misery and the Middle East. A man who has revelled in the limelight throughout his time at Ofsted, left, as he would have wished, as the lead item on the 10 o'clock news.

The importance of Chris Woodhead has been greatly exaggerated. It is a tribute to Mr Woodhead's public relations talents that his departure has been splashed across the front pages of national newspapers, despite the news agendas being awash with flood, rail misery and the Middle East. A man who has revelled in the limelight throughout his time at Ofsted, left, as he would have wished, as the lead item on the 10 o'clock news.

The Prime Minister, Mr Woodhead's admirers, and the Chief Inspector himself believe that he has been an indispensable element in the campaign to raise standards in schools. William Hague thinks so highly of him that he is about to recommend him for a peerage.

Teachers, who argue that his attacks on them have damaged school standards, have been demanding his resignation for years. They hope that his departure will lead to a brave new world where the dreaded Ofsted sword is beaten into a ploughshare, morale rises and the reputation of the profession soars. Both sides areconvinced that Mr Woodhead matters. Both are wrong.

The Prime Minister and, to a lesser extent, David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, made the mistake of thinking that they needed to cower behind Chris Woodhead if they were to keep the parents of Middle England on board. The decision to retain him, even after a series of embarrassing allegations about his private life, was based on political calculation - and fear of what Tory papers and commentators would say.

For the latter, Mr Woodhead was the standard bearer of the attack on the complacent trendies who were wrecking schools. While Peter Hitchens argued in the Daily Express that the disappearance of Mr Woodhead from the scene would expose the bankruptcy of the Government's policies on education, a timorous Downing Street refused to budge.

In fact, the reverse is true. By the time Mr Woodhead was reappointed two years ago, Mr Blunkett was already well on the way to establishing that the Government's policies didn't need him and that ministers were quite capable of standing on their own feet on their agenda of raising standards.

That is even truer now than it was then. Mr Blunkett has some spectacular achievements to his name. Last week, he was able to announce that Labour will easily fulfil its pledge of cutting infant class sizes to under 30. In September, results of English and maths tests for 11-year-olds showed that ministers are on course to meet their targets for primary schools, despite all the doubts expressed by teachers and commentators when they were first announced. In particular, standards in the inner cities are rising more rapidly than elsewhere. Failing schools are being turned round more quickly. Regular inspections, backed by this government and started by the last, have helped to drive up teaching standards. Teacher shortages remain a problem, but a Chief Inspector famous for running down teachers is hardly an asset in a recruitment campaign.

And which of these policies depend on Mr Woodhead continuing in his job? The answer is, quite simply, none. He didnot devise the literacy and numeracy strategies: they wereboth worked out by Professor Michael Barber and Professor David Reynolds at the behest of Mr Blunkett. True, he encouraged the previous government to experiment with literacy and numeracy hours, but it was Mr Blunkett's determination to turn them into a nationwide scheme that helped to improve primary school test results. Ofsted's regime of inspection was in place before Mr Woodhead, and will continue after him. So will the efforts to improve inner-city schools through the education action zones, which Mr Woodhead dislikes. His outfit may name failing schools, but other people - heads, teachers and local authorities - turn them round. And in his support of traditional teaching methods, Mr Woodhead is just one of a chorus of people who seek to reverse the received wisdom of the Sixties.

As for parents, they are unlikely to lament the Chief Inspector's resignation. Most, when asked whether they had heard of him in a poll commissioned by The Times Educational Supplement, replied "Chris who?" Only just over a third knew who he was, and most of those probably knew more about his alleged adventures with a schoolgirl than his educational pronouncements.

Despite last week's staff-room jubilation, teachers may find that not much changes. They will still be under intense pressure from tests, league tables and school inspectors. Their lessons will still be graded by inspectors, and the best and worst will continue to be named to the head. Schools will be failed. Perhaps, faced with a recruitment crisis, politicians may be more circumspect in their language about teachers.

But in his attacks on incompetent teachers and bad schools, Mr Woodhead did little more than echo the thoughts of some of his political masters. He has annoyed teachers more than they have because of his vivid language and abrasive manner. But although ministers appear to be soft-pedalling their comments at the mom-ent, as the election approaches, they will not want to be accused of going soft on teachers by Chris Woodhead, leader writer and columnist on The Daily Telegraph.

Mr Woodhead's status as teachers' chief bogeyman for six years will secure him a place in educational history. His presence in such a key job may have pulled down by a notch or two the morale of a profession which was already reeling from a decade in which it had been battered by politicians from both left and right. He may have put a few would-be teachers off teaching. But the difference he has made to what happens in classrooms is small. A natural journalist, he will be remembered for his words rather than his deeds.

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