Better a useful gadfly than an overrated saint

15th May 2009 at 01:00
Even his harshest critics should acknowledge the value of some of Woodhead's views

Apparently, you should be revolting. If you weren't so spineless, staffrooms up and down the land would be seething with insurrection. How can you just sit there, supinely regurgitating all that pedagogic pap the Government directs you to teach? Where is your pride? Have you no guts? Tell those jargon jockeys in the Sanctuary Building where they can shove their endless directives. Riot.

So says rabble-rouser Citizen Woodhead (pages 6 and 37). Many teachers will find it a bit rich that Ofsted's former witchfinder general has now discovered his inner Arthur Scargill. After all, this is the man many hold responsible for bludgeoning the profession into the cowering herd he finds so pitiful now. This is the man renowned for being cosy with the Conservatives and Tony Blair, while being beastly to teachers, and the man who had no compunction telling his successors they were "going soft on standards".

Professor Chris Woodhead now says he regrets some of his earlier positions, particularly on the national curriculum. Whether he still thinks sexual relations between teachers and students could be "experiential and educative" is unknown. But it is a racing certainty that his long-held views on "vacuous liberals" and their "flabby deluded orthodoxy" remain intact. He delights in being a scourge, even if his opinions can be predictably conservative and occasionally downright batty. Even the Anabaptists of Buckingham must wince on hearing that pupils' "genes are likely to be better if their parents are teachers, academics or lawyers".

Zealots are distrusted. Professor Woodhead's views are easy to dismiss because of the intemperate manner in which they are often delivered. But that does not always make them wrong. Liberals, vacuous or not, would reluctantly agree with him that unthinking implementation of the Government's agenda should not be the principal point of an Ofsted inspection. They would also agree that many who have misgivings keep quiet because they fear the consequences of speaking out. The deluded surely share his concerns about the huge number of quangocrats. And even the flabbiest liberal must despair at their war on the English language. Why study Shakespeare when you can talk and write like an Ikea manual? Above all, who could disagree with his central points that the profession lacks confidence and that debate, however unsettling, is good for it?

It is true that many who have had personal dealings with Professor Woodhead find him abrasive, infuriating, disingenuous and - that cowardly English put-down - difficult. His rhetoric has too often been unsupported by fact. Many who have never met him cannot forgive him for what they regard as regular and unjustifiable attacks on the profession and a treacherous alliance with its enemies.

But he has never been afraid to take on vested interests, to think the unthinkable, or to say the unpopular, nor to express himself with a passion and fluency that are the hallmarks of the best teachers. Professor Woodhead's critics should concede that saints are an overrated breed. Gadflies are far more useful.

Gerard Kelly, Editor, E:

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