The gentle liberal who turned into an abrasive scourge of teachers

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The Independent Online

Ever since The Independent revealed 18 months ago that Chris Woodhead had told an audience of student teachers that sex between a teacher and a sixth former could be "experiential and educative", the education world has expected him either to resign or be sacked.

Ever since The Independent revealed 18 months ago that Chris Woodhead had told an audience of student teachers that sex between a teacher and a sixth former could be "experiential and educative", the education world has expected him either to resign or be sacked.

When his former wife accused him shortly afterwards of allegedly having an affair with a sixth former while teaching at her school, the expectations grew.

But his powerful allies, who include the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister, stood staunchly by him. Tony Blair's advisers argued that he was a vital part of New Labour's strategy for keeping the middle classes on board. If they dispensed with his services, they felt, they would be vulnerable to the charge that he was abandoning the standards agenda that Mr Woodhead had promoted so enthusiastically. They feared particularly the reaction of newspapers such as the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph which had taken Mr Woodhead to their bosom.

So the official line, that he has jumped rather than being pushed, is almost certainly correct.

The Prime Minister is said to have been furious with him on several occasions, particularly when he said that Section 28, the clause that bars local authorities from promoting homosexuality, caused no problems in school. He was also annoyed when the chief inspector questioned his policy of encouraging half of young people into higher education at the Conservative Party conference. But, in the end, Mr Blair felt he had to continue to back him publicly despite worries that Woodhead was aligning himself with the Conservatives.

Though Mr Woodhead had many uncomfortable moments after the revelations about his private life, he bounced back within six months and was soon writing articles for newspapers and stirring up controversy with his outspoken comments.

From almost the first day he was appointed he plunged into controversy with a characteristic attack on the teaching profession. In 1994, he wrote an article in the Daily Mail headlined "Sack the Useless Teachers". In an interview with The Independent at the time he said: "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."

Later he provoked an outcry by saying that there were 15,000 bad teachers who should be sacked - the remark for which he will be best remembered. Teachers hated him, partly because the body he headed, the Office for Standards in Education, has brought a new system of regular inspection to schools but also because of his personal, abrasive style. In Wales, where a similar system of inspection has been introduced, there has been no outcry from teachers.

He lambasted primary schools for still making models out of egg-boxes instead of instilling the three Rs into pupils, and made constant forays into "discovery" methods of learning that encouraged pupils to find out things for themselves rather than being told them by the teacher. He backed the teaching of reading by traditional methods such as the use of phonic. He delighted the traditionalists of the "standards are falling" brigade by questioning whether exam standards at GCSE and A-level had been maintained.

But his attacks were not confined to teachers. He also castigated academics and anyone he considered a member of the education establishment. Academics, he said, in one of his most swashbuckling attacks, were at the "heart of darkness", and most of the money spent on research was wasted.

He loves controversy, even if it annoys his masters. David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, was furious when he described the national tests sat by all seven, 11 and 14-year-olds as unreliable and suggested that, anyway schools were cheating.

Most teachers will see the Conservative-championing Daily Telegraph as a natural home for him, but his views have changed several times throughout his career.

He was recruited as a lecturer in English to Oxford University's department of education in the Seventies, he was called in to add a liberal and progressive voice to a traditionalist department obsessed with grammar.

Earlier, he had been deputy head of English at a Gloucestershire comprehensive where Fenella Strange, a sixth former, remembers him as "this charming other worldly bloke". She added: "The word I would use more than any other would be idealistic. We considered ourselves years older than him ... one felt one should hold his hand as he crossed the road."

He thrived under the Conservatives but had already begun establishing relationships with New Labour long before Tony Blair was returned to power. His relationship with Mr Blunkett has been much less cordial than that with the Prime Minister.

Recently, he has appeared to move closer to William Hague, the Conservative leader, whose campaign against educational bureaucracy and policy of freeing schools from local authorities are in tune with his own views.

One of the keys to his influence is his enviable grasp of the English language. Unlike most of those in education, he never uses jargon.

Throughout his time as chief inspector, he has used the media to promote himself and his ideas, ringing leader writers on friendly newspapers to persuade them of his views.

The son of an accountant and a school secretary, he attended Wallington grammar school in Surrey where he was caned twice, once for cheating in a Latin test and once for turning the French master's pictures to the wall. The latter summed him up in his report in a single word "wild".

His lifelong love of rock climbing in Cornwall and Snowdonia has provoked innumerable comments about his desire for danger, and wry asides from teachers' leaders joking that they would like to be holding his safety rope.

He is divorced with one daughter. His relationship with Ruth Miskin, head of a successful primary school in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, broke up some months after the controversy about his personal life which engulfed him last year.

From 1982 he worked in the local authorities that he is now eager to see dismantled. His first job on the national scene was as deputy chief executive of the National Curriculum Council. His rise to the top after that was rapid.

But it was his elevation to Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools that transformed Chris Woodhead from functionary to one of the mostforceful political figures in the 1990s.

His most able critics have watched with awe at his ability to capture the public imagination and shape the schooling of a generation.

Yet in recent months, many observers have seen him strain harder at his political leash, fending off increasingly strident accusations that he has routinely been exceeding his remit.

Last night the speculation was that the confines of agovernment department may have simply left him bored.

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