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At the court of the 'brave' chief inspector

The chief inspector of schools always appears baffled at accusations that he behaves in any way that could be considered political.

Chris Woodhead insists that he does not take a party political line and, as head of a government department, has a degree of independence in the views he expresses.

The status of the post, created when the schools' inspectorate was taken out of the then Department for Education, is intended to remove the chief inspector from the day-to-day politics of the department. However, as the principal adviser on education to the Department for Education and Employment, he is considered to be accountable to that department.

Appraisal of Mr Woodhead against objectives set in discussion with the DFEE is carried out by the department's permanent secretary. The appointment is made by the Education Secretary, with the approval of the Prime Minister.

Although his direct links are with the DFEE, there is criticism that Mr Woodhead does not observe the convention of keeping his department informed of his contacts with Number 10. The informal discussions he has with Dominic Morris, the education adviser at the Number 10 policy unit, are not reported to Education Secretary Gillian Shephard.

Usually, a senior civil servant would ensure his own department was kept informed of any briefings external to his own department. The fact that Mr Woodhead has separate dealings with the Number 10 policy unit does nothing to improve the strained relations between the Prime Minister's office and the DFEE.

However, Mr Woodhead's links with the Number 10 policy unit were established before his appointment as chief inspector. During his time at the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, he and Sir Ron Dearing, the chairman, worked closely with the unit. The link between Nicholas True, the then education policy adviser at the unit, was maintained in his new post Mr Woodhead took over the vacancy at OFSTED in September 1994, having narrowly beaten the internal candidate, Anthea Millett, the then director of inspections and now chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency. The interview panel produced both names, and the final decision is believed to have been taken by John Patten, the then Education Secretary.

Almost from his appointment, Mr Woodhead has appeared to court political controversy. He has come under attack for writing a pamphlet for the right-wing think-tank, Politeia, which gave particular offence to chief officers of LEAs.

In one section, the pamphlet queries whether local authorities undermine the dynamic leadership of schools by generating a dependency culture. It also questions whether the services offered by them could be better provided by commercial companies.

The chief officers pointed out that Mr Woodhead was not expressing a personal view, but writing as the chief inspector of schools. The draft was not submitted to the DFEE for clearance.

Of more serious consequence for the DFEE, are the briefings on OFSTED initiatives that have been provided to the Number 10 policy unit. The extent to which the unit has notice of plans within OFSTED can be discerned from the text of the speech John Major made to heads of grant-maintained schools a few weeks before the Conservative party conference last year.

The speech was drafted in Number 10, without much input from the DFEE. It outlined major work to be undertaken by OFSTED.

The Prime Minister made public a joint initiative between OFSTED and three London boroughs to investigate the most effective ways of teaching reading. However, to the consternation of the boroughs, it was announced as the inspection by OFSTED of the teaching of reading in the three boroughs that get some of the poorest results at the end of compulsory schooling.

It was also announced that OFSTED would be reporting on the effectiveness of local authorities. That commitment has now been redeemed with the promise of legislation.

Ministers in the DFEE insist they have no criticism of the way the chief inspector operates. Their view is that the Prime Minister calls on senior figures, such as the chief inspector, rather in the way that he takes advice from the chief medical officer.

There is a counter view, shared by civil servants and others, that Mr Woodhead plays a role that only adds to the conflict over education policy that characterises relations between Number 10 and the DFEE.

In terms of education policy-making, it places Mrs Shephard in the difficult position of briefing a Prime Minister who is also taking advice separately from the chief inspector. There are always tensions between advisers at the heart of government. In this case, Mrs Shephard is not always aware of what other papers have been presented to the Prime Minister's office.

The view taken by Mr Woodhead is that he heads a separate government department that is neither part of nor subservient to the DFEE. According to an OFSTED spokesman, the chief inspector is in no doubt that OFSTED's independence extends to briefing other departments without going through the DFEE.

On the occasions when the Prime Minister is giving a speech on education, it is perfectly reasonable, added the spokesman, for him to go direct to OFSTED.

"We don't have a minister, but we are one of his departments," said the spokesman. The position of Mr Woodhead is that of public servant, not technically a civil servant, says OFSTED.

As far as OFSTED is concerned, any consequences for relations between the DFEE and Number 10 as a result of OFSTED briefings, is a problem that needs to be sorted out by Sanctuary Buiildings (the headquarters of the DFEE).

While Mr Woodhead retains the confidence of the Prime Minister, the DFEE may have to tolerate his political networking. The chief inspector also has his supporters in the national press, notably the Daily Telegraph.

In a recent leading article calling on Number 10 to take a tougher line with Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary was criticised for only affording "lukewarm support" to her "outstandingly brave " chief inspector.

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