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Pity the poor chief inspector at Politeia

Poor Chris Woodhead. The chief inspector of schools was denied another chance this week to appear as the rational man of the centre, flanked by speakers from the Left and Right.

When the audience assembled for the great debate on standards organised by Politeia, Dr Sheila Lawlor's new think tank, they saw that the Right was there (Lord Skidelsky), Mr Woodhead was there, but Tim Brighouse was not. Professor Brighouse, Birmingham's director of education and the man intended to represent the Left, had been unable to rearrange a council meeting and escape to London, it seemed.

His absence made it difficult if not impossible to conduct a proper debate, as Mr Woodhead pointed out. "And," he added ruefully, "it will no doubt fuel the ire of those who think I shouldn't speak at any debate organised by Politeia. "

He need not have worried. Having stepped straight off a flight from New Zealand on Monday (and written his speech notes on the plane, by the looks of it) Mr Woodhead seemed to have been calmed by jet lag. He said nothing controversial, and seemed the soul of moderation and gradualism after a speech by Robert Skidelsky attacking the educational establishment and advocating vouchers for all.

Lord Skidelsky - biographer of Keynes, professor of political economy at Warwick University and chairman of the Social Market Foundation - traced the current crisis in education to the "educational butchery" of destroying the grammar schools and imposing a single (comprehensive) system. This had removed the main institutional obstacles to the triumph of the progressive tendency, he said.

While he welcomed the Government's efforts to restore institutional variety by such means as creating grant-maintained schools, he none the less criticised ministers for trying to raise standards on the Stalinist "top-down" model. This presupposed that government had both more knowledge and more power than it actually had, he said.

He started instead from the libertarian side of the debate. Since there were no characteristics of education which required it to be produced by the state, he would give all its schools the status of legally independent corporations, able to charge fees, just like the universities. This would abolish at one stroke the class divide between state and private education.

State intervention would be limited to laying down the period of compulsory education (which he believed would gradually be shortened to end at 14) and to setting a legal framework, covering health and safety and civilised standards, within which schools would have to work.

The state would also license a competitive system of examination boards with the power to certify that pupils had reached certain standards in certain subjects by the time they had completed compulsory or post-compulsory education.

Parents would be given means-tested vouchers, whose average value would be set at the current cost of educating a state school pupil, with higher income parents getting less and and lower income parents more. They would be helped in their choice of school by information from a publicly-funded central educational statistical service, with the right to carry out random tests and publish the results.

There would also be a publicly- funded education office in every area to inform parents about local schools. This could be run by local authorities, who could also provide ancillary services in competition with private suppliers.

But Chris Woodhead rejected such a radical solution. Expressing faith in the changes introduced by the national curriculum and the new inspections system, he warned: "We shouldn't be driven down the vouchers road by despair at the failure of the current reforms to work. They have made a considerable improvement already."

Even with vouchers in their pockets, he said, it would be very difficult for parents to make an impact. Some schools needed external support, he added, although he was not convinced it was needed by all schools or that it needed to be provided by local education authorities.

"I am not convinced the state should withdraw completely and hand over to the free market," he said. This would lead to "unacceptable eccentricity of local curricular provision."

Lord Skidelsky's attack on educational experts and their language ("like drowning in a pot of treacle") angered Christine Whatford, the director of education for the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.

She was "fed up with being slagged off for knowing anything about education, " she said. "If this were a seminar on medicine, we wouldn't be embarrassed if we were brain surgeons!" Anne Jarvis, who chairs the education committee of the London borough of Barnet, attacked the idea of vouchers, and said she did not see how small schools would manage without the considerable support system provided by the local education authority.

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