Aunt Sally at the Woodhead show

15th March 1996 at 00:00
I'm slow to anger but the utterances of Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, and his sneering contempt for anyone who disagrees with him has roused me to a cold fury not experienced in my 26 years in the profession.

A cheap crack at post-inspection trauma counselling may raise sniggers from his invited audience but it betrays an insecurity of his own that would be disappointing in a headteacher and disturbing in a chief education officer, and is deeply depressing in a chief inspector. What's so wrong with sensitive forward planning? If a head or a governing body feel it appropriate to anticipate post-inspection stress or trauma, then it seems like good human management policy to do something positive.

Mr Woodhead has evidently not yet grasped that it tends to be the better teachers (the majority) who worry most about inspections. They are naturally self-critical and are constantly re-evaluating their own teaching performance. His comments do nothing for their morale. Has it not occurred to him that many, perhaps most, of those teachers now leaving the profession are among the best?

His absolute refusal to see the main points and concerns raised by heads and teachers in socially deprived areas is an example of his obsession. He insists on putting up the Aunt Sally that poor performance, as shown by tests and examinations in these schools (compared to those in leafy suburbs) has little to do with the background or base-line ability of those students and everything to do with poor teaching and low expectations.

I cannot and do not attempt to deny the repeated reports from the inspectorate and other sources that there are many things to be improved and developed in schools, and that these include methodology. We have to examine practices and beliefs and be ready to alter or modify them. Differentiation is one of them and rightly so but it seems obvious that that also applies to schools, their resourcing and their evaluation as much as it does to individual children. What price individual education plans for schools? It's logical.

It is a fatuous nonsense to suggest that poverty is no excuse for the gulf in achievement. Has Mr Woodhead worked in a school where the physical, social, emotional and linguistic abilities of children starting at reception level is at a low and steadily declining level of competence? Where some children literally do not know what "no" means? Where their vocabulary is not so much restricted as throttled? Where a high proportion of children suffer from emotional, physical or intellectual neglect, deprivation or abuse, and behave accordingly?

The real poverty is not so much financial - though this has real consequences - as in the poverty of these children's rights to physical comforts, good nutrition and health and emotional warmth and of adequate and consistent parenting. This poverty is only matched by Mr Woodhead's abysmal poverty of understanding of these factors.

I wonder if the chief inspector has yet to make the connection between the traditionally larger junior classes and the Office for Standards in Education's findings that the teaching and learning is poorest at this key stage. I also believe that the class size issue is sharply focused in socially-deprived areas where both learning and behavioural difficulties (and the sheer volume of them) cause staff major teaching and logistical problems and stresses. I have both taught in and been head of "socially deprived" and "leafy suburb" schools and have a pedagogical knowledge of the significant difference in skills needed by staff.

Is it neurotic to react apprehensively to being told, arbitrarily, that 25 exclusions in secondary schools (five in primary) is the limit and that you are failing if more than this number are excluded, when neither the size nor the social context of the school is taken into account?

I would suggest that it is Mr Woodhead who incites more genuine morale-damaging despair (not neurosis, Mr Woodhead) among teachers, school staff, governors and aware parents than any CEO, academic or journalist.

TONY LAYCOCK Headteacher Bracken Hill Primary Bracken Road, Sheffield

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