A noble educator: Chris Woodhead's schools vision was far ahead of his time


Sir Chris Woodhead, who died on Tuesday after living with motor neurone disease for nearly a decade, was a divisive figure within the educational establishment. His tenure as Chief Inspector of Schools in England and Wales may best be remembered for his claim that 15,000 incompetent teachers should be weeded out.

Sir Chris was perhaps in the right place at the wrong time. His belief in the efficacy of a fact-based, rigorously examined education was not at odds with the views of the then Education Secretary, David Blunkett: nonetheless, it was the collapse of their working relationship which heralded his departure as the chief of Ofsted in 2000. Had he been in post 10 years later, working alongside the like-minded Michael Gove, they might have made a formidable duo. Indeed, Sir Chris recently expressed his dismay at Mr Gove’s removal from the Education Department in last year’s government reshuffle.

The policies overseen by Mr Gove and continued by Nicky Morgan are, some will argue, a vindication of Sir Chris’s views: that raised ambition and rigour are the keys to educational attainment. And certainly, his fundamental faith in the need to improve the core skills of literacy and numeracy in primary-age children now seems utterly uncontroversial. Whether moving away from modular examinations will improve achievement, as Sir Chris claimed it might, remains to be seen, however.

Some teachers will never forgive him for his outspoken criticism of their profession. They believe the primary cause of variable success in the past 20 years is ministerial interference, not institutional failure. Yet, while tinkering by government is not always helpful, it shows at least how vital education has become in terms of public policy. For having forced the subject to the top of the political agenda, Sir Chris Woodhead deserves our gratitude.