Nation of fools and Tolkien readers

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Popular culture, revealed in the choice of The Lord of the Rings as the book of the century, is a threat to educational standards, Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools, said yesterday.

He said the success of the BBC comedy Only Fools and Horses and the big vote for JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings from a bookstore's customers were both examples of that danger. At a London lecture he asks: "What does this really say about our attitude towards quality in the arts?"

Later he said: "I am sometimes pessimistic about cultural expectations and the extent of support for teachers doing a difficult job."

The Lord of the Rings was voted the Greatest Book of the 20th Century in a poll of more than 25,000 people conducted by the book chain Waterstone's and Channel 4's Book Choice.

Mr Woodhead, a former English teacher, said the view of Tolkien that was revealed in the poll militated against the work of English teachers across the country.

"They are trying to develop discrimination in their pupils and an understanding of literature. The Lord of the Rings is an immensely readable book but it is not the greatest work of the century."

Only Fools and Horses, which attracted 24.35 million viewers in its final Christmas episode, conveyed the message that education was irrelevant to success in life: "Del-boy" Trotter and his brother discovered a priceless antique in the last episode.

Anne Barnes, General Secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "It is ridiculous to say that certain books shouldn't be read in schools. Schools are there to help children read what interests them. And to give them the opportunity to discuss why a book is enjoyable." She said that Tolkien's The Hobbit was sometimes used in schools by teachers who were Tolkien enthusiasts. Lord of the Rings was rarely taught.

A spokesman for the BBC said: "The writing, performances and production values of Only Fools and Horses are of the highest standards. Its function is to make people laugh and over 24 million people enjoy the show.

"It's interesting that New College Durham announced today that Only Fools And Horses would form part of its BTec theatre studies course."

In his lecture, Mr Woodhead said taxpayers were paying out between pounds 50m and pounds 60m for education research that often came up with blindingly obvious results.

In his first speech since he was endorsed by Tony Blair, the Labour Party leader, he repeated his attacks on the education establishment.

A review of research, he said, had revealed that "effective leadership" in school was usually "firm and purposeful" and that the most successful schools "are more likely to be calm rather than chaotic places".

"Do such blindingly obvious statements constitute a proper return for taxpayers' money?" he asked.