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Inspector admits to youthful idealism

Wood Chrishead, the impassioned, eloquent young man who saw education as a subversive activity, has grown up. His transformation into Chris Woodhead, HM Chief Inspector of Schools, was acidly noted last month by TES columnist Professor Ted Wragg. The student of the Sixties who extolled the virtues of child-centred progressive teaching no longer wears flared jeans and cannot remember the last time he listened to his Grateful Dead albums.

Now in his late forties, Mr Woodhead has by his own admission "less apocalyptic goals". Before more than 300 heads and governors of grant-maintained schools who gathered in Birmingham last week he admitted he had changed. "For better or worse, we grow up!" he confessed.

The chief inspector admitted that he took many of the aspirations and values of the Sixties into his first job as an English teacher in Shrewsbury. "I was young and visionary in my social idealism. I believed in the perfectibility of man and I was much taken by the ideal of education as a subversive activity, " he told the annual conference of GM schools.

The young Mr Woodhead read books such as Personal Growth through English, English for the Rejected and The Intelligence of Feeling. He wrote in The TES about arts subjects bearing the brunt of the utilitarian attack, and about the economic recession being an explanation of the backlash against anything savouring of a progressive ideology .

In his recent annual lecture as chief inspector, however, he lambasted progressive child-centred teachers as a major obstacle to raising standards. He accepts that in part he has betrayed his previous ideals, but says he is still challenging ideologies and orthodoxies.

He told the conference: "We have a situation in which a commitment to one particular approach blinds too many teachers to the very real and very positive contribution a different pedagogy can make. The question ought to be 'which teaching methods are best suited to the curricular objectives being pursued'? But too often it doesn't get asked.

"There are those who say I'm empirically wrong, that it isn't like this. Well, I can only repeat that my arguments are not mere ideological whims."

Mr Woodhead - who has not lost his eloquence - sees his task now much more in terms of initiating young people into the best that has been thought and said, equipping them with the knowledge and skills they will need to find a reasonable job, and teaching them about morality and taste. It was not simply a question of traditional versus progressive, of good and evil, or of the oppression of the rich professional culture of teachers by an ignorant government. That kind of thinking was pathetic, he said.

"Do you see local management (in your case GM status) as an imposition? Do you think that all was well in education pre-1988? Do you think that all is well now?" he demanded.

The questions were clearly rhetorical, designed to answer Professor Wragg and his critics. But one wondered what Wood Chrishead would have said.

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