The school bully?

Profile; Chris Woodhead: Fran Abrams on the teachers' foe who thinks sackings could boost standards
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The Independent Online
CHRIS WOODHEAD, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools, is not a man whose detractors are hard to find. Start asking questions and they come rushing from the skirting boards, eager to denounce both his political stance and his personal style. He may not be well-known to the public but every teacher has heard of him and most loathe him. Instaffrooms he is the favoured dart-board pin-up. His annual report, due tomorrow, is awaited eagerly by press and politicians, apprehensively by teachers.

Perhaps teachers need a hate-figure upon whom all the frustrations and resentments of the job can be vented. If so, Woodhead plays the part admirably, apparently heaping scorn on the profession at every opportunity. On his first day in the job, 16 months ago, he had an article in the Daily Mail, summarised by a front-page headline as "Sack the Useless Teachers!" Schools should get rid of incompetent staff, he wrote. "If the teaching profession is unable or unwilling to implement change, then standards of teaching are not going to rise. Thus far, many teachers have shown themselves resistant to change."

Teachers were not used to language like that from chief inspectors. For years, HMI was seen as part of what Tory ministers grumpily described as "the educational establishment" - the union leaders, council education officers, teacher trainers and so on - who believed that, broadly speaking, the teaching profession was sound at heart and that nothing was wrong with schools that could not be cured by a few billion pounds more. The inspectors' visits to schools were described as "supportive"; they dispensed gentle but firm advice, not threats of the sack or closure. Woodhead, a former teacher of English, local authority education officer and teacher- training lecturer, comes from the heart of that reviled establishment. Yet he now symbolises the harsher (and, some think, more politically partisan) inspection regime that the Tories have established. "An element of threat is not necessarily a bad thing," he said recently. "I personally respond to threats. The education system has been immune to any kind of threat for too long."

Such words could easily have come from a Tory backbencher. And the government benches have had many other reasons to applaud. On the eve of the Conservative Party conference last year, Woodhead announced that there were such concerns about schools in the Labour-controlled London boroughs of Lambeth and Waltham Forest that every one needed urgent inspection. Then, just as the effects of 10,000 teacher job cuts were sinking in, he said there was no evidence that smaller classes would raise standards.

In December, he delivered his coup de grace. In a pamphlet he said that child-centred learning was responsible for bad results. The failure of many young men to gain qualifications was due to "the failure of the teacher to teach". This time the angry reaction refused to die away. The pamphlet was published by Politeia, a right-wing think tank, and the local authorities - whose future existence was questioned - complained to Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, about what they saw as the "professional impropriety" of Woodhead's linking himself with such a body.

Mr Woodhead does not seem distressed by all this. In fact, he admits that he likes a good scrap. And recent events could be written off as a spat between a traditionalist chief inspector and a liberal educational establishment. But scratch the surface and a more complex picture begins to emerge.

About 15 years ago, for example, Woodhead, then training teachers in Oxford, wrote to the Times Educational Supplement to express his fears about education under Margaret Thatcher: "The economic recession," he wrote, "might explain the present hardening of attitudes, the backlash against anything savouring of a progressive ideology."

So who is Chris Woodhead? Is he a former liberal who had a conversion, or perhaps a conservative who had a youthful fling with liberalism? Or is he, as some of his critics suggest, simply an ambitious man whose views changed subtly to fit in with the ideology of the day?

IN PRIVATE, Chris Woodhead exudes a smooth charm, a teasing humour and even a hint of self-deprecation. He is a keen hill-walker and rock climber whose lean, six-foot-plus frame makes him look younger than his 49 years.

The son of an accountant and a school secretary from the southern fringes of London, he went to Wallington Grammar. He became captain of athletics and captain of school, but his reports reveal sticky patches. One teacher complained that "twice this year his folly has earned him a most severe punishment", another that his Highland dancing was "unbelievably deplorable". His French master's view was monosyllabic: "Wild," he wrote.

Woodhead read English at Bristol University before taking a teacher-training course. One lecturer, Philip Gammage, now a professor of education at Nottingham, recalls a bright, argumentative lad who wrote poetry. "He was very much influenced by the notion that individual excellence comes from confidence, comes from self-esteem and comes from feeling that you are worthwhile. That's a fairly liberal concept in many ways."

After three years at a traditional grammar in Shrewsbury, he became deputy head of English at Newent, a Gloucestershire comprehensive. Fenella Strange, then a sixth-former, recalls "this charming, sweet, other-worldly bloke. 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." Conversely, another former acquaintance recalls him as "rakish and attractive, an extremely dashing kind of teacher".

Fenella Strange was taught again by Woodhead when she trained as a teacher at Oxford. One of his suggestions for an English lesson, she recalls, involved handing round a box of apples and using them to inspire creative writing. "They ate the apples and threw the cores at each other. He was a very nice guy but he knew very little about what it really means to be a teacher."

After leaving Oxford in 1982, he became an English adviser and then chief inspector in Shropshire and later deputy chief education officer in Cornwall and Devon. In Cornwall he was detailed to close a number of small rural schools - a venture which in his own words, "failed dismally". He and his colleagues had to withdraw in haste from Bolventor, near Jamaica Inn, after the local farmers turned out with their muck-spreaders to protest. The locals repaired to the inn and celebrated the routing of the men in grey suits until the small hours.

He was rescued from this ignominy by a phone call from Duncan Graham, chief executive designate of the new National Curriculum Council; he became Graham's deputy in 1991. A year later, Graham was sacked by Kenneth Clarke, then Secretary of State for Education, and Woodhead had his job. His rise continued inexorably: an appointment as one of "three wise men" chosen by Clarke to look into primary education; head of a new body when the curriculum authority was merged with the testing council; and, finally, chief inspector, the job he says he has always coveted.

Woodhead is often accused of ambition - a motive that is still regarded as faintly disreputable in the teaching profession. He was never, by all accounts, a very comfortable man to have as a deputy. "I think I must be an ambitious person," he says, "but not in such a way as to have structured my career from day one. I suppose I have seized the moment... I think there have been a lot of enemies. I don't dispute that."

He has also made some powerful friends. He is rumoured to have dined with Prince Charles at Highgrove. He is reputed to be close to the Prime Minister's policy advisers.

Woodhead's political friends say he is doing a job which needed to be done, that it was about time someone called for higher standards in the teaching profession. Others think he may be playing a dangerous game. Eric Bolton, chief inspector from 1983 until 1991, says: "As I saw the job and as my predecessor saw it, it was the absolute kiss of death to get too close to any political interest."

Woodhead hotly denies that his pronouncements have been political, or that his views have shifted to fit the prevailing ideology. To stand still is to atrophy, he says, and in any case the supposed split between traditionalists and progressives is a false one. This is true and many political factions in this country, not least the Labour Party, have swung away from progressive educational ideals in recent years. Some colleagues think he could survive the early years of a Labour government; his pronouncements on standards are not, after all, so far removed from Tony Blair's. But it is hard to see where he goes after that; right-wing friends and outspoken criticisms of teachers are not the best qualifications for jobs in education. Woodhead himself says vaguely that he would be quite happy to potter about the Lake District doing a bit of rock climbing and supply teaching. Most teachers would advise him to avoid the staffrooms and stick to rock climbing.