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Great and good unite against Woodhead

It is not clear what reaction HM Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead expected to his lecture at the Royal Society of Arts in London last week criticising the "unquestioning" commitment to progressive ideas in many primary schools.

But the Great and the Good, and even the teachers, gathered in the bemuralled lecture hall were duly provoked.

The most passionate was Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. "I must be very candid that I find it astonishing, almost beyond belief, that at the very moment when a fragile consensus is emerging that the reforms which are in place could be made to work for the benefit of the children, you have chosen to raise a debate which is based on polemic, and actually leads to further distraction rather than turning to the very issue you identify, which is raising standards in all our schools, " he declared.

His fellow general secretary, David Hart of the National Association of Head Teachers, one of the panel of respondents lined up at the rostrum, felt the debate about standards and subject teaching would not go away, but said: "I very much fear teachers will feel they've been attacked again." This could "drive people back into their burrows".

He and other speakers stressed that the issue of funding could not be ignored. Heads and subject co-ordinators needed non-contact time to prepare, work with teachers and monitor quality, he said.

Peter Smith identified the lecture as a "media event" - even before reading such headlines as "Trendies in class who harm pupils" (Daily Express) - saying this would make careful analysis of the issues more difficult.

Headteacher Glenys King, whose school, Bentley West Primary in Walsall, featured in OFSTED's video on inspection, said: "If we want to move on and progress and improve, we have to accept where we are at this moment." There was no point going over the past, being anecdotal or judgmental, "because people will focus on what they see as unfair or incorrect." We need to focus on what comes next, she said.

Meanwhile, panellist Keith Anderson, the chief education officer of Gloucestershire, said the scenario drawn by Chris Woodhead (of teachers acting solely as "facilitators" and unwilling to impart knowledge) was one he didn't recognise. "It's not a picture I would endorse," he said.

Eric Bolton, one of Mr Woodhead's predecessors as chief inspector, challenged the idea that teachers were unwilling to teach subject matter. "It's ridiculous to believe that the process could grind away like a coffee-grinder without a bean," he said. "People do select content. The question is which content. That's a rather different debate."

Support came from the philosopher Professor Anthony O'Hear, who was concerned about the contributors' emphasis on the 21st century. "I think what the lecture has raised as a question is how do we treat the knowledge of the past which at least some of us think should be transmitted," he said. "Every time there's been a renaissance, the people leading it have gone back to the past in a way that has led to a creative engagement with the past."

While Education Secretary Gillian Shephard has been quiet about Mr Woodhead's lecture, shadow education secretary David Blunkett stood up for standards. "I welcome Chris Woodhead's support for a debate on standards," he said. "Labour has been urging such a debate for some time. I also welcome Mr Woodhead's emphasis on the importance of primary education in preparing pupils for later learning".

He added: "It does seem, however, that Gillian Shephard's order to shut down debate on educational standards has been lost in transmission. I do hope that Mr Woodhead does not find himself at odds with the Secretary of State."

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