A man of influence

11th February 2000 at 00:00
THE CONTRAST between the Chief Inspector of School's opening commentary in his latest annual report (page 4-5) and the first that Chris Woodhead penned in 1995 is remarkable. Both, it should be noted, carefully began with the positive. "Good quality and real improvement" were his first five words in 1995 which, in case you don't recall it being headlined at the time, went on in the second paragraph to record that "pupil standards of achievement are satisfactory or good in the majority of schools".

Both then move into his own idiosyncratic discussion of the findings in the main body of the report. The style frequently verges on the polemical which, if nothing else, makes for lively reading: "Why is it that in too many primary schools 'learning by doing' is preferred to 'teaching by telling'?" he queried in 1995 without feeling the need to justify how many exactly constituted "too many" or where he had come by this intelligence.

But it is in the scope and target of his closing remarks that the real contrast lies. In 1995 his tone was restrained. He focused upon professional practice in a spirit of enquiry, promising to promote a debate about what constituted effective teaching and to investigate whether heads were exercising sufficient curricular leadership.

Now the professioal issues are clear: "We know what constitutes good teaching...and why it is our best headteachers are so effective", he confidently asserts. For him, the unaddressed problems lie elsewhere. "Why, then, is so much time and energy wasted in research that complicates what ought to be straightforward, in expensive initiatives that distract teachers and headteachers from their real responsibilities, in administration and bureaucracy that render the simplest of their tasks labyrinthine in their demands?"

If that is not a clear enough criticism of ministers and their advisers inflicting such distractions as citizenship education and the burden of a bureaucratised performance pay scheme, the Woodhead manifesto then demands with barely concealed impatience "decisive management action" nationally and locally to strengthen school leadership.

Chris Woodhead has always stoutly maintained his independence. The legal basis of his appointment gives him almost carte blanche to investigate and comment where and when he wishes in education - provided he retains the support of the Prime Minister. His latest report signals that he has clearly decided to exercise the considerable powers this gives him not just to report to Government but to influence it - and he doesn't care who knows it.


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