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The eunuchs' taskmaster

When Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools says inspection is "the eunuch's task", it is a clear sign that something is up.

But that was what Chris Woodhead, citing George Steiner's verdict on literary criticism, told the Professional Association of Teachers in Glasgow. Just as the writer was the important and creative person in literature, so the important person in education was the teacher. Inspectors could only offer insight, not create change.

This was the new chief inspector: admitting the Office for Standards in Education process had sometimes been "inhumane", inviting delegates to tell him if inspectors ever gave verdicts they disagreed with - and even warning that any fast-track procedures to sack incompetent teachers needed safeguards to ensure they were not abused by vindictive headteachers.

But if the consensus was that Mr Woodhead was stepping into line with his new Labour masters, adopting a classroom-friendly stance in his first speech to a teachers' conference since the election, he would not see it that way.

As he told journalists afterwards, "New Labour has built upon Old OFSTED. " He had always believed in praising success, right from his first annual report. He had never supported "naming, shaming and blaming" but instead believed in identifying problems so that solutions could be found.

He added: "I don't think anything the Labour government has said or done in the past three months has been out of order. It has spoken clearly according to my own philosophy about the problem."

Mr Woodhead succeeded in charming this most moderate of unions - one delegate remarked afterwards it was good to hear the full story rather than the press's precis.

He told delegates his job was "as much or more about praise and recognition as it is about naming and shaming". But teachers who had lost that "passionate enthusiasm" that the best of their profession displayed "might as well pack up shop and go home".

It was in his assessment of OFSTED's past failings and his plans to improve the inspection system that some humility crept in.

He admitted some teachers had been given a lack of feedback and he pledged that the number of observations some teachers endured would be cut. Inspectors sat in on as many as nine lessons in a single week for some teachers in small primary schools.

"It is inhumane for an inspector to come in and listen, and then leave without offering comment," he told delegates. "There ought to be a real professional dialogue between you and the inspector."

The quality of inspections would be enhanced through better training - some inspectors had not had the expertise, or had it in the wrong areas for the inspection they were conducting, he accepted.

And he offered schools a new role in self-evaluation, adding that whether in that new role or in preparing for OFSTED visits, "no school should have to burn the midnight oil producing policy documents".

Indeed, every school should scrutinise the need for the paperwork it already has, he said, which brought hollow laughter from an audience which otherwise received Mr Woodhead politely.

He may feel he can take his foot off the pedal a little: he said afterwards that he believed more governing bodies and heads were facing up to the problem of poor teaching. The fast-track dismissal process meant the country was "finally seeing the solution".

OFSTED, and those other aspects of accountability, tests and league tables, clearly preoccupied delegates to judge from the motions discussed at conference.

There was concern that pupils were being drilled for tests, and at the amount of knowledge children were expected to acquire.

There is something charming about a PAT conference - nowhere else would a motion begin "conference suspects". And the large numbers of abstentions for some more obscure motions show delegates have the courage to admit when they just don't know.

Surprisingly for an association often viewed as right-wing, a motion saying that "mixed-ability teaching has had its day" fell convincingly.

The conference was also notable for a teacher's touching admission that after working for 22 years she still lacked self-confidence, surrounded as she was by younger colleagues who left her feeling "totally inadequate".

Supporting a motion for Government action to promote teachers' self-confidence, she said: "Yes please. And can I be first in the queue for some of it?"

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