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Chris Woodhead and MPs on the select committee have had their ups and downs. Frances Rafferty reports on the latest encounter.

THE CHIEF inspector and MPs on the education select committee have had a long and interesting relationship.

And as Chris Woodhead, accompanied by three colleagues, faced the MPs this week, it looked as if their bare-knuckle contest was staggering on.

It was the first time they had met since the the publication of the committee's report on the Office for Standards in Education, which said Mr Woodhead should curb his intemperate approach and rely on evidence not conjecture.

But despite a tetchy start, the confrontation never sparked. Liberal Democrat Phil Willis at one point wondered if he'd been taking the right pills, as he heard himself agree, more than once, with the chief inspector.

It was Mr Willis who asked Mr Woodhead whether he felt he had carried out a McCarthyite crusade against the forces of conservatism in the education world - a reference to Tony Blair's remarks at the recent Labour party conference.

Mr Woodhead declined to be drawn into such murky territory, but said he did recognise that the culture of excuses still existed in a minority of cases.

"I'm taking about a minority where the culture of excuses includes: low expectations; the tendency to blame the Government for lack of resources, parents for not producing more intelligent children and the collapse of Western civilisation as we approach the new millennium," he said.

He said despite many believing that his task was a poisoned chalice, OFSTED had delivered what Parliament required. If he thought he had not done his job properly, he would have resigned.

He acknowledged failings in a number of his inspectors, but said the inspection service had changed the culture and climate of schools. While there was still a stubborn rump of failing schools, standards were rising.

The committee is awaiting the appointment of a chair, since Malcolm Wicks, like his predecessor Margaret Hodge, has been promoted to the Department for Education and Employment where he is lifelong learning minister.

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