A tale of two approaches

5th June 2009 at 01:00

I was shocked when I read last month that former chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead has motor neurone disease. It is a terrible, debilitating condition, and for a man as active as he was it must be a dreadful blow. Still, he seems to be facing it with the stoicism and determination he showed while at the Ofsted helm, and this will probably get him through his final years. One can only admire that.

Our paths have crossed on a couple of occasions. A decade ago, my school endured a vicious inspection from a team I considered vindictive and incompetent. At the time, schools relished a visit from Ofsted with the enthusiasm they might have had for an encounter with the Spanish Inquisition, and since Professor Woodhead had said 15 per cent of teachers were hopeless and should be sacked, inspectors felt they were free to treat schools however they liked.

During the two years we spent successfully fighting our Ofsted report, I dealt with 17 officials, a number of whom said they would need to refer my correspondence to the chief inspector - presumably in a bid to frighten me off.

I was interviewed by BBC Radio 4 for a news item about Ofsted inspections. Since Professor Woodhead was a far bigger name than me, a mere head, I was given 20 seconds and he was given much longer. He said the profession would be better off without people like me offering crass comments about an organisation that was rapidly forcing up educational standards.

Of course, it was doing nothing of the sort, and never has done. After I wrote a feature about our inspection, I received letters from schools all over the country that had suffered varying degrees of humiliation. The saddest came from a head who had spent two years turning round a hugely difficult primary school, only for her confidence to be destroyed by an aggressive Ofsted team. It had made her ill and she left the job several months later. Well done, Ofsted.

Professor Woodhead still believes many of his views were right, and that education should return to some mythical halcyon period. He says he didn't enjoy many of the subjects he was taught at school, but that rigorous discipline and pressure from teachers ultimately moulded his life. He also says teachers are mere tools of the state now and that they should fight back when they disagree. Funny, I can't remember Ofsted, under his leadership, being very happy when I did exactly that.

I was at secondary school during the same years as Chris and I hated it. Tired, arrogant, grey-haired men taught me little, caned me often and humiliated me when I didn't understand. If I met some of them in the street now, I'd probably punch them. Secondary school only convinced me that if I ever had the good fortune to lead my own school, I would never run it like that.

Secondary education is far from perfect 50 years later, but it's a lot better than it was. Teachers are committed and hard-working, and lessons are of far higher quality. It's the pupils who tend to be the problem, since respect, concentration and decent behaviour often seem to be in short supply.

While Chris Woodhead was in charge of Ofsted, Tim Brighouse was running the Birmingham education authority, and I was fascinated by the difference in their approaches to schools and the people in them. Chris felt teachers should be leaned on. Tim believed teachers were good people who should be nurtured and inspired. When I visited a number of Birmingham primaries as part of a heads' course, I couldn't find anybody who didn't have the highest respect and affection for him.

My school is run on the Brighouse philosophy. And I am convinced that's the reason it is successful.

Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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