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On the rocks with Machiavelli

Delivering his annual report this week, Chris Woodhead, OFSTED's chief inspector, continues to arouse passions and create controversy. Will he survive a change of government? asks Lucy Hodges

As a lad, Chris Woodhead, Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools, was the bane of his teachers. One year his headmaster was moved to write: "Twice his folly has earned him the most severe punishment." His French teacher summed him up in one word: "wild". Did that refer to his way with French or to his behaviour in class? Chris Woodhead is not sure.

One can see how today's outspoken boss of OFSTED might have been a right pain in his teenage years. The cheeky rebel who endured beatings at his grammar school is today taking on the entire education establishment, charming some like education journalists with his charisma, smiles and sense of fun, berating others for their complacency, laziness, or downright incompetence.

Most people in education can have no idea how engaging Woodhead is, because they get no further than his criticisms of teachers. But he has been known to bowl people over this tall, energetic fellow who is refreshingly candid for an educationist, and doesn't worry too much about how his words will come out on television or in the newspapers.

In the demon-ology of the education service, however, he is the bogeyman. He beats previous Conservative Education Secretaries the late Sir Keith Joseph, a favourite hate figure of the 1980s, and even John Patten, arch-demon of the 1990s. Resented by many teachers for his attacks on their competence and trendy teaching methods, scorned by some education professors for his generalizations, and judged by a majority in education to be compromising the independence of his position, Woodhead, 49, arouses extraordinary passions.

Even chief education officers have been moved to protest at the chief inspector's plans to inspect local education authorities. They are suspicious of him and have questioned his powers. Keith Anderson, chairman of the standing conference of education officers, has said his attacks are "ill-founded" and "ill-judged" and that he should try working in partnership as Gillian Shephard is "trying so hard to encourage."

Woodhead's tub-thumping manner irritates educationists. In a BBC Panorama programme last year he called for 15,000 incompetent teachers to be sacked. Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer, questions this polemical style which, he says, has a detrimental effect on teacher morale.

According to Brighouse, the worst teachers have gone in the past few years. "We're in extreme danger of losing our best and most inspirational teachers because of the climate in which our system is operating," he says. "I am really concerned that the wrong tone is being set nationally to improve motivation and push standards up."

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, who knew Woodhead when he was number 2 in Devon, says Woodhead "is now aligning himself far too closely with the right-wing of the Conservative Party. And it was very unwise for him to write a tendentious pamphlet for a right-wing think-tank."

Wragg was referring to the pamphlet which the chief inspector wrote for the launch of Politeia, the new forum set up by Sheila Lawlor, a proponent of education vouchers.

In the pamphlet Woodhead argued that trendy teachers, rather than a lack of money, were to blame for poor standards in schools. Questioning the existence of local authorities because of the "dependency culture" they create, the chief inspector said good schools were led by confident heads. And he returned to a favourite bugbear, child-centred learning, which had dominated primary schools since the 1960s and was, he claimed, responsible for pupils' poor results.

It is said that Woodhead has power and influence that goes beyond education into the Downing Street Policy Unit and thence to the Prime Minister. It is also said that John Major spouts Woodhead's ideas in his speeches, much to the discomfort of Education Secretary Gillian Shephard. A suggestion the chief inspector denies.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, has doubts about Woodhead's political nous. It is not smart for Woodhead to be antagonising the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats in the way he is, he says. According to Hart, it has placed a question mark over the future of OFSTED if there were a change of government.

"He has provided the Government with a number of face-saving statements, not least on class size, and he has managed to incur the wrath of opposition parties to an extent which I cannot recollect in the past. That is a matter for regret because we should have an inspection system which will be the bedrock of the future."

Last year the Inspectorate produced a report on class size which made the same point as that made by the Labour party that it was only worth reducing class sizes in the first three years of primary schooling. But at a press conference to launch the report, Woodhead put a cost on class reduction. Reducing the average size of a primary class by one pupil would add Pounds 170 million to the teachers' pay bill, he said. Labour's costing, worked out by the National Foundation for Educational Research, had been Pounds 60 million extra a year.

Labour cannot have been best pleased to have been contradicted publicly by Woodhead. It is one thing for a Tory minister to dispute figures from the Opposition, but another for a quasi civil servant to do so.

Asked about the criticisms the torrent of abuse which has poured in his direction he responds feistily, challenging his critics to give chapter and verse, exposing the fallacies in their arguments and arguing that the chief inspector must report honestly and clearly what he sees.

Why does he arouse such antipathy? "I suppose when anybody's vested interests appear to be challenged then there is a natural tendency to react defensively, " he says. "I can understand that. My aim isn't to challenge in order to render insecure. It is to try to identify the questions that seem to me to be important, and to have those questions debated as honestly and rigorously as possible."

Woodhead's unpopularity goes back a way to, for example, Devon and Cornwall in the 1980s where he occupied the number 2 jobs in both local education authorities. One person who worked with him in Cornwall believes there is a Machiavellian streak in him. He says: "I consider him one of the least fitted for public office of anyone I met in my 35 years."

Challenged about such epithets, Woodhead says: "I certainly don't think Machiavelli was a figure to be scorned or spat upon."

He rejects absolutely the accusation that he has destroyed some people's careers, as has been suggested. "If there are people who are not doing the job and I have had to face up to that, then I accept full responsibility. In terms of an allegation that in some gratuitous way, to further my own career, I have destroyed people, then that is an accusation that would need to be substantiated."

On allegations that he is compromising the chief inspector's independence he is unequivocal. "Rubbish," he says. "Complete rubbish." At which point Woodhead gets up to rummage in his papers for a book on the Inspectorate containing a chapter by Eric Bolton, former chief inspector.

He finds what he is searching for."Never at any point in its history was HMI wholly or constitutionally independent of government." That sentence was written by Mr Bolton, today a professor at the London Institute of Education.

So, is Her Majesty's chief inspector answerable to anyone? Technically, it's the Queen, Woodhead supposes. "I'm meant to be independent of the Secretary of State," he says."But OFSTED is a government department, and the head of all government departments is the Prime Minister." So there is an ambivalence there, he points out. Anyway, as Eric Bolton says, it's a myth that the chief inspector has been independent of government.

Woodhead thinks the chief inspector should be independent of both government and the teaching profession. It would be "a fatal abnegation" of this independence if he were to be a champion for the teaching profession, he says. "My job is not to protect the interests of the producers. It's to identify the strengths and weaknesses in the system."

Why then does he not take more trouble to maintain the appearance of independence? Why did he pen his most recent thoughts in a pamphlet identified with the far-right? Woodhead says he would have written the same stuff for a left-wing think tank.

"I see it as my job to contribute to the public, political and professional debate about education," he says. "If people can't separate the substance of the ideas from the context in which I express those ideas, that's their problem."

But it has also become his problem. Even his admirers acknowledge that such misjudgments may be damaging. The son of an accountant, Woodhead loves a good argument. He is tough, ambitious and clear-headed, someone who did well academically (at Wallington grammar school and Bristol University) and does not suffer fools gladly.

His great love has been rock climbing. It enables him to give full play to his risk-taking nature. He spent hours climbing mountains while a student at Bristol, and while teaching English in schools in Shropshire, Gloucestershire and Avon. Before a climb he gets scared, he says, which heightens the thrill when you conquer the summit. It is clear that fear is a great motivator for him. He is infamously attractive to women and probably the only education official to have had a whole page devoted to his romantic life by The News of The World. Currently he lives in West London with a primary school head and has a daughter by his first wife.

According to those who know him, Woodhead is keen on high culture and believes the study of English is hugely educative. He won't be drawn on whether he would like to see a return to selection, saying he cannot comment on such a political hot potato.

He admits to being restless. He gets bored easily, needs a lot of intellectual stimulation, likes to shape events, and doesn't shy away from hard, difficult work. In Shropshire where he went to revamp the advisory service after his stint as a PGCE tutor for English at Oxford University, he was involved in making people redundant. There followed a couple of years in Devon, and less than a year in Cornwall before he was off to the National Curriculum Council in York as deputy chief executive. It wasn't long before he became boss.

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Manchester University, credits Woodhead with efficient and unobtrusive work at the NCC. Ron Dearing's report on the national curriculum owed a great deal to Woodhead's lucid and incisive mind, he says. In l992 he was one of the so-called Three Wise Men, along with Professor Robin Alexander and HMI, Jim Rose, who reported on primary schooling. That report was widely accepted.

The brickbats did not really begin to fly until after former Education Secretary John Patten appointed Woodhead chief inspector 16 months ago. And that happened because Woodhead began to speak out in the controversial ways mentioned.

Peter Coles, Hampshire's chief education officer, argues that Woodhead over-generalises about primary education today. Woodhead's criticisms of the upper end of key stage 2 are correct, he says. But he should not apply the criticisms about primary teachers' lack of specialist focus to six-year-olds as well. Says Coles: "I am sad that he is feeding the right-wing press in the view that primary education in Britain is no good. If he directed his criticism to key stage 2, many of us would join him."

Like other educationists Coles is critical of the way the chief inspector uses OFSTED research. Woodhead's 15,000 incompetent teachers figure comes from extrapolating from the aggregate number of unsatisfactory lessons observed by inspectors, not from the number of unsatisfactory teachers seen.

According to Tony Wates, head of Tavistock primary school in Devon and a former member of the National Curriculum Council, Woodhead has a genuine desire to raise standards. "The problem is that I don't think he recognises as much as he might that you can't change the teaching force instantly."

Chris Jones, assistant chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, who worked under Woodhead, comments: "The motivation behind all of what Chris Woodhead says is to improve the quality of what goes on in schools and to shake people out of their complacency. He's not afraid to be controversial about it because he thinks that way you get change."

Another supporter, Professor David Hargreaves, who runs Cambridge University's department of education, admires Woodhead's courage enormously. "I think Chris is raising for public scrutiny issues we have hidden for far too long, and he is forcing people in the system to think hard," he says."I think he is right. What saddens me is that the response has often been to attack him personally. "

Certainly, Woodhead has helped to give education a high profile. Bill Laar, a former local authority inspector, says he has promoted worthwhile debate and that in practice he has brought OFSTED closer to achieving its targets on inspections. He has recruited additional inspectors from the ranks of heads, not from outside the profession, for which teachers may give him thanks.

The chief inspector is on a five-year contract with four years to go. Will he survive a change of government? Probably not, according to most people I spoke to. His ambition is said to be a university vice- chancellorship. On the other hand his friend Philip Gammage, professor of education at Nottingham University, says that Woodhead doesn't give a damn in the end. "Chris could walk out tomorrow and go to his cottage and write poetry, and he would be fine," he says.

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