Blip for new Labour as heads rap Woodhead

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Smiles quickly froze at NAHT conference with Chris Woodhead's elevation to the standards task force. Clare Dean reports

Outside Scarborough's Spa Centre, headteachers lined up in the sunshine to greet David Blunkett, the first Labour education secretary for 18 years - clapping loudly and beaming broadly.

"I wish I'd bought my cossie," he joked as the temperature soared and the crowds of half-term holiday makers jostled for space on the beach below. "Then we would be well away."

Inside the conference hall the atmosphere was decidedly cooler. The decision to appoint Chris Woodhead, the profession's bete noire, to a task force to raise standards had not gone down well.

Members of the National Association of Head Teachers were angry and wanted the head of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector on a platter, not smooth words and phrases.

Less than half an hour before Mr Blunkett's first address to a teacher trade union since the General Election, new Labour was in trouble with some of its natural allies.

To loud applause and cheers, delegates unanimously expressed no confidence in Mr Woodhead's remaining in a position of major influence over the future development of policy in schools.

Education's Mr Unpopular had lost the confidence of the nation's schools, teachers, staff and governors. They did not share his particular vision of education declared Chris McDonnell, the Staffordshire NAHT secretary.

Mark Newman, from Bradford, demanded Mr Woodhead's dismissal "on the grounds of the damage he has caused to the education service" while Eric Spears, from Kent, urged Mr Woodhead: "In the name of God go now."

Meanwhile, fellow Kent head Brian Norbury confessed that he had hoped that the Prime Minister's assurance that Mr Woodhead's job was safe was "like the vote of confidence from the football chairman to his manager".

Mr Blunkett believes the task force, which he personally will chair, will be an evangelical group, spreading messages of good practice in the crusade to raise standards.

He will certainly get an evangelist in Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's director of education, who has been appointed as vice-chairman of the task force alongside Mr Woodhead.

But with Professor Brighouse, widely regarded as one of the profession's saints, and Mr Woodhead on the same task force there are fears that it may become something of a Jekyll and Hyde body.

Professor Brighouse has been one of the severest critics of the Office for Standards in Education, claiming that it had "imposed a reign of terror" on schools.

But Mr Blunkett told the NAHT: "I am determined to unite the whole of the education service I so that we can cast aside the divisions and conflict of the past.

"What they have both agreed with me is to draw a line under the faults and to look at the roles different people can play in lifting standards and being honest about the enormity of the problem.

"Setting about the task of putting it right is something that unifies them both."

He was not surprised by the hostile reaction to Mr Woodhead's appointment - "there are very few surprises in the education service" - and was unequivocal in his condemnation of those who sought to damage the drive on standards.

"Let no one, no sceptic, no cynic, no energy sapper, erode the enthusiasm and the hope that currently exists. To those who constantly talk about demoralisation and by doing so, demoralise not only themselves but others, I have one clear message.

"If you are not with us, then step aside for there is no room in the education service for those who do not believe that we can do better. This is a can-do Government and you must lead a can-do service."

The 500 delegates were clearly in a quandry. For they were delighted to have a Labour education secretary, giving him prolonged applause on taking the conference platform.

It was left to David Hart, general secretary, to look beyond the immediate indignation of his members. He claimed that the appointment of Mr Woodhead was a shrewd political way of silencing the Chief Inspector.

"It is a clever tactic on the part of the Government to try to rein him in and to try to make sing from the collective hymn sheet. Up to now in a way he has been out of tune in a way that has caused intense annoyance to the profession.

"I don't think Chris Woodhead should be sacked but if he makes public utterances which are contrary to the views expressed by the task force the Government has no alternative other than to get rid of him."

Mr Blunkett meanwhile was maintaining that the move was not intended as a gagging measure and that the job of Chief Inspector remained an independent role.

He urged an end to the "positive is a negative" way of thinking in that the only good that could come out was the sacking of Mr Woodhead.

"It is time to put that aside and to see a positive programme of uniting people and their different views and the role to be played as critical if we are to achieve the task.

"The spirit of people to speak their minds and be listened to with respect on all sides is important. Abusing each other is the last way to give an example to our children."

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