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Should he stay or should he go?

In the first of a series of summer debates, we ask whether the chief inspector's contract should be renewed.

The chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, has become education's most controversial figure. During his four-year tenure at the head of the Office for Standards in Education, Mr Woodhead has managed to incur the wrath of teachers, professors and chief education officers.

He is resented for his forthright views which his detractors claim are not based on evidence that can be gleaned from school inspection. David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, is expected shortly to announce whether Mr Woodhead's contract is to be renewed for another five years (though his contract does not expire until next summer).

Sheila Lawlor argues that Mr Woodhead's contract should be renewed so he can continue to subject schools to the scrutiny which has brought him enemies, while John Dunford argues that Mr Woodhead's personal agenda is at odds with the needs of education and a change should be made.

The office is a Crown appointment, which gives Mr Woodhead a degree of independence from ministers.

However plans for a major revision of school inspection is likely to follow this autumn's review of OFSTED's operation. Ministers might be tempted to change the terms of the chief inspector's contract to ensure closer working with the standards and effectiveness unit in the Department for Education and Employment, which now has the major role in the drive to raise standards.


Very shortly, Chris Woodhead's fixed term as chief inspector of schools will end and the Government will have to decide on the matter which has long tantalised the education world.

Will the Government use the occasion to see off the dreaded object of hatred and to replace him with "one of us"? Or will ministers stick to the principles on which serious inspection must rest, where inspection remains an outsider's job and the inspector a figure without cronies in the world on which he reports?

Whatever the area, the role of inspector is to inspect without fear or favour. Only when the inspector is detached from the inspected, will there be confidence in inspection; provided, of course, the rules which guide the work are sufficiently rigorous and transparent. Outside inspectorates are part of everyday life. There is always a potential conflict of interest between inspector and inspected, one must reveal what the other might want to hide. It is the heart of the three-way understanding between society, the inspector and the inspected body that this potential is accepted.

That understanding has broken down when it comes to schools. Too often the inspected - many teachers and heads, and the educational interest groups from unions to educationists and local education authorities - see Mr Woodhead's approach to inspection as a challenge to their own position, indeed to the dominance which they have long exercised over maintained education in this country.

Mr Woodhead's approach reflects the first attempt for decades to insist on a process of inspection which is detached from that which is inspected, which reports on what is found, which illuminates what is successful, and which is unsparing of weakness or failures. It owes much to the first task he set himself - clarifying and pruning what had been a welter of muddled criteria for inspection. For it is no secret that what Mr Woodhead found on arrival was not a framework for fair, open and transparent inspection, but the codified criteria which had inspired the erratic activities of HMI.

HMI was better loved by the inspected, than by the public on whose behalf it carried out inspections. Its inspections, just as its voluminous publications, were as much designed to promote preferred theories of education and to transform in theory and practice British education to reflect the fashions which had gripped it. Few gripes were heard, even when HMI singled out good academic schools for unfavourable reports.

Mr Woodhead must now cope, not just with the backlog of inspections, but with the reality which that inspectorate - together with its LEA counterparts - has left behind. Failing schools, low standards, poor discipline, a profession too often contemptuous of academic values and intellectual rigour, and an establishment which prefers life as it has been led, ''accountable to none'' (other than itself).

Mr Woodhead has some way to go. He needs greater scepticism about the tools Government employs to raise standards - whether the low standards imposed by the national curriculum or the impossibility of combining whole-class with mixed-ability teaching. He might further refine the framework for inspection, make more transparent what is being inspected. He might take the measures for efficiency into a language we understand in every other area of life: days lost by teaching staff through illness or for other reasons (and the extraordinary culture of tolerance surrounding this) should be investigated. Above all he might look to the other arm of inspection, the public examination system as the best complement to inspection and a far better bet than centralised or intrusive control (by central or local government).

Mr Woodhead should be given the chance to continue what he has started: not just as a symbol of continued battle with the interest groups and crony culture, but because the system of education needs to be restored to the world outside, and schools need to be reminded that their accountability is to that world and to parents.

* Sheila Lawlor is director of the think tank, Politeia.

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