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Angry chief inspector grilled by MPs

Josephine Gardiner on Chris Woodhead's appearance before a Commons committee

MPs have forced the chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, into an angry public denial that he tampered with the report on Birmingham education authority and have obliged him to defend both his own record and the Office for Standards in Education's whole raison d'etre.

At a hostile and edgy session before the House of Commons education and employment select committee on Wednesday, the chief inspector hinted that he would be prepared to take legal action against anyone who impugned either his own integrity or that of his inspectors.

"If you say in any sense that the judgments made by HMI were tampered with or changed in the light of my idiosyncratic views on Birmingham I reject that entirely and would take any action I need against anybody who made that suggestion."

The exchange will have done little to improve relations between the chief inspector and Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer. Both men are vice-chairs of the Government's standards task force. Mr Brighouse is known to be unhappy with some of the comments in the draft report.

More importantly, the row will exacerbate the disagreement between Mr Woodhead and the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, over the role of local education authorities. The chief inspector has publicly cast doubt on the ability of local authorities to fulfil the central new role in raising standards given them by the Labour Government.

Asked by the chair of the select committee, Margaret Hodge, to clarify how much input he had into the Birmingham report, Mr Woodhead responded by reading out a statement he had made to Birmingham councillors on Tuesday. "Let me say unequivocally that I have not tampered with the report in order to impose my own views... what I did on this occasion is what I do with every major report published by OFSTED: I submitted the arguments and the evidence to minute and rigorous scrutiny."

He added that the report has the total support of the inspection team and that each member of it was prepared to "state on oath that there was no interference in the inspection process of the kind that has unfortunately, unfairly, mischievously and maliciously been alleged".

He admitted, however, that one section of the draft report had been removed "because the chief officer (Tim Brighouse) was so upset about it. I thought that if it got in the way it was not worth it". He added that the reason OFSTED had cancelled a meeting to discuss the report was that he was in hospital with a detached retina. He refused to comment on Mr Blunkett's press release of February 6 which highlighted only the good parts of the report, saying it was not appropriate for "a public servant to reflect on the behaviour of his political master".

He repeated to the committee many of his reservations about Birmingham's performance. There was a "disjunction between reality and rhetoric. We saw it as our job to bring out that disjunction". He also remarked that the transfer of information between primary and secondary schools was "in disarray". Margaret Hodge, who kept the chief inspector under a relentless hailstorm of hostile questioning right from the start, asked whether the Birmingham exercise has been worthwhile given that only 8 per cent of schools had been inspected and Birmingham had said that it had spent Pounds 200,000 preparing for the inspection.

Mr Woodhead replied that if the authority had really spent that much "it was a gross misuse of public money". OFSTED only spent about Pounds 70,000 on inspecting LEAs, he said.

Birmingham's improvement of the education service and teacher morale was "tremendous", but "the actual rate of progress of the children should not be lost sight of - there's a long way to go yet".

Task force meets, page 11 LEAs lobby woodhead, page12

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