Woodhead backs `bully' inspector

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CHRIS WOODHEAD, the Chief Inspector of Schools, has privately offered his backing and support to Geoffrey Owen, an inspector who was sacked after accusations that he bullied teachers.

Mr Owen allegedly told one London primary head "to expect a Rolls-Royce of inspection" that would be "no consolation to those crushed beneath the wheels".

John Harries, the former head teacher of Hillbrook primary school in south London, alleged that Mr Owen drove him to a nervous breakdown. But Mr Woodhead, who sacked the inspector after complaints from 10 schools backed by teachers' unions, has sent a private, handwritten letter to Mr Owen, offering to "oil the wheels" for future appointments.

Heads yesterday accused Mr Woodhead of "cronyism" and misuse of patronage.

An unrepentant Mr Owen - a former deputy head and the leader of a team of inspectors - who failed 15 per cent of the schools he inspected compared with a national average of 2 per cent, said that the dispute highlighted the debate over how tough inspection should be. Most inspectors, he said, "pulled their punches". But the purpose of inspection was to change schools.

"I agree 100 per cent with Chris Woodhead that schools need independent, objective inspections," he said.

He ended up inspecting so many schools, he said, because "many inspectors fight shy of inspecting difficult schools".

Mr Woodhead's letter says: "I found the decision to de- register you the hardest I have had to take as Her Majesty's Inspector of Schools. There may be nothing I can do to help with the future but if there ever is I will do it. Don't hesitate to contact me, if you think I might be able to oil the wheels."

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "This is an entirely wrong sort of patronage and the Chief Inspector should keep well clear of it. It's a bad example of cronyism. We don't want this man inspecting schools ever again."

He said the letter raised wider issues about inspection. At present, Mr Woodhead's Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) appoints a complaints adjudicator who cannot overturn the results of inspections. Mr Dunford said there should be an independent complaints machinery.

However, Mr Owen won support yesterday from a former parent governor at Hillbrook school. David Jordan, editor of BBC1's On the Record programme, says in The Times Educational Supplement that, without the inspection, the school would probably have gone on failing its pupils.

"The schools was complacent: before inspection a teacher had suggested that staff had the right to be smug about its achievements... It was resistant to changing education policies," he says. Mr Owen, he says, delivered the bad news to the governing body, "plainly but sympathetically".

A spokesman for Ofsted said: "For a long time, despite a number of complaints, we continued to have confidence in Mr Owen's judgement. He was finally dismissed for poor management of one particular inspection where he did not perform as one would expect. That doesn't stop people having sympathy with somebody who has lost his livelihood."