Skip to main content

Book of the week

CLASS WAR: the state of British education. By Chris Woodhead. Little Brown pound;14.99

Tim Brighouse has read Chris Woodhead's 'Class War'. He loves the jacket

An apocryphal story circulated shortly after Chris Woodhead's resignation as chief inspector. His successor, Mike Tomlinson, summoned Ofsted staff to a meeting to quell any incipient panic in the hearts and minds of a potentially desolate group of loyal followers who had just lost their great leader. "We shall carry on as usual except in one matter," he is said to have remarked. "In future, all our reports will be based on evidence."

Some of the reports that bore Chris's imprint confused assertion with argument and came to judgments that confused evidence with opinion - so, like all good apocryphal stories, it was one easy to believe.

Class War, promoted modestly on the jacket as a book "every parent should read", continues this tradition. Indeed, at one point the author disarmingly proves the point. "Are our schools getting better? Are standards rising? Yes, if you believe the statistics and the evidence."

But, as the reader by this time discovers, rhetorical questions, of which there are more in this book than most, tend with Chris to invite you to conclude, not with evidence or statistics, but with his own particular kind of logic. It is an invitation not too difficult to resist.

The language is in the best traditions of the "Dear Bill" column in Private Eye. "Twaddle", "gobbledegook", "high-falutin'" and "shilly-shallying" are favourite phrases reminiscent of a retired brigadier at the 19th hole.

Indeed, the military metaphor is apt. Class War is the tale of a battle-weary man who has spent a substantial part of his life single-handedly trying to save our schools, whose defences have been breached by almost overwhelming hordes of besieging armies. Even in his beloved Ofsted, our hero had to be on the alert for fellow travellers and enemy agents.

There are seven chapters, revealing his battles and campaigns on "Standards", "The Lunacy of Learning", "Teachers and Teaching", "Ofsted", "Local Education Authorities", "Universities" and "The Way Forward". Much of the material is not new. So, as Chris critically examines universities, he trots out once more his much-loved quote from philosopher Michael Oakeshott about education being "a conversation between the generations".

His own love of philosophy can be detected in his preoccupation with the concept of truth. Although he asks, "What is the truth?", and answers unhelpfully, "the truth is that there are no truths", it does not stop him from finding many truths, the first of which about teaching is that you have to keep order. There are many more equally astonishing insights.

The most revealing passage concerns a one-day visit Chris made to the Sabis international school in Springfield, Massachusetts. Here he discovers "peer-tutoring", involving 95 per cent of the students. He describes it persuasively and concludes: "It works. If I had not seen for myself and talked to students, I may well have been sceptical. As it is, this is one innovation we ought, I believe, to be introducing into our schools."

And there you have the man in all his simplicity. He alone knows the answers to all his and other people's questions. The book, incidentally, lacks an index and for that matter any recognisable footnote system, but on one page there are no fewer than 25 references to "me" and the possessive first person pronoun. It is easily the most popular word - deployed an estimated 2,000 times in this thankfully short book.

His broad thesis rests on a battle against what he calls "The Blob" - another frequent visitor to the pages. "The Blob" represents everyone in education, other than Chris himself and a few lonely others. Even the writing of the book has been a triumph over adversity. We hear about him gazing out of the window at the Welsh rain after writing one banal sentence; after another, "sinking into a deep gloom". At another point, he writes: "It is the children who learn. The teacher teaches. Two simple little sentences and I have sat here for half an hour wondering whether I have the courage to let them stand." His self-confessed "anger" crops up time and again, but after courage like this the reader can forgive him.

The book ends with "The Way Forward". He opts for self-governing schools, vouchers and privatisation. One by one, he slays his dragons: local education authorities; the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority; the Department for Education; the national curriculum itself - off with all their heads. After speculating that they could be entrusted with exams, for one awful moment he dangles his sword over Ofsted. For once, he is ambivalent. But at the last he spares Ofsted, perhaps hoping one day to be summoned by a grateful nation from his exile.

The book has many gaps. Quite what happens to children with special educational needs we shall never know. They receive no mention. And for a book purporting to be about "British education", there is strangely no mention of educational arrangements in Scotland or Wales (or, for that matter, in Northern Ireland), although he does reflect on Welsh rain and the Welsh language, with which he is wrestling in another personal and, one suspects, losing, battle of learning.

The reader is forced to conclude, even if 450,000 teachers might disagree, that on the evidence of this book, it is a good job Chris did not make a career of writing - although the jacket is a brilliant design.

Chris approvingly quotes Professor J A Smith greeting his new Oxford students: "Gentlemen, nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in the afterlife, save only this - that if you work hard enough and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot." Quite.

Tim Brighouse is chief education officer for Birmingham

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you