The chief inspector rounds on his critics

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Josephine Gardiner reports on Chris Woodhead's annual lecture. The education establishment is deliberately and irresponsibly fuelling teachers' paranoia about the inspection process and encouraging them to see themselves as persecuted victims, Her Majesty's chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, said this week.

He also made it crystal clear that he was committed to his role as the champion of the "consumers" of education and the scourge of failing "producers".

Chris Woodhead devoted his second annual lecture on Tuesday to the public humiliation of his critics, whom he divided into three categories: those who accuse him of compromising the political independence of the inspectorate; those who say inspections are demoralising teachers, and those who question the Office for Standards in Education's methodology.

He despatched each with evident relish, and declared that criticism is actually the sincerest form of flattery: "The more intense that criticism, the more vociferous the cries that we have compromised our independence, the more confident I will be that we are, as the Citizens' Charter put it, in touch with the interests of the people who use the service."

While he acknowledged that it is often the most conscientious teachers who worry most about inspections, he accused teacher unions, chief education officers, academics and education journalists (The TES was cited repeatedly) of inciting neurosis in the profession because they object to the very idea of inspection and refuse to admit standards need to be raised. "It is dangerous in the extreme," he said, "to play to the lowest common denominator of professional anxiety." Tales of woe would not persuade OFSTED to pull its punches and pretend that everything in the garden was rosy, he warned."Honesty is the only policy."

He ridiculed an advertisement in The TES offering counselling for "post-OFSTED trauma", which raised a laugh from the invited audience.

The accusation that OFSTED has become the Government's "political poodle", said Mr Woodhead, is nothing but a time-wasting distraction from the real issues "an aggrieved mantra which is substituted for any rational engagement". Anxiety about the chief inspector's political independence was heightened at the end of last year when his critique of child-centred learning was published by Politeia, a right-wing think tank headed by Sheila Lawlor, an advocate of vouchers for all stages of education.

On Tuesday he quoted former senior inspector of HMI Eric Bolton to argue that the inspectorate has never been wholly independent of Government, and said that given the Labour party's recent emphasis on standards it was difficult to see how OFSTED could be accused of party-political bias.

The real reason why people criticise OFSTED, he insisted, is because they cannot grasp the idea that it was created "not to defend the interests of the producer but to empower the consumer".

Those who say that OFSTED should balance criticism with support and advice should remember, he said, that it is impossible to provide support without the initial critique, and that inspectors who revisited schools they had already inspected were less likely to be objective in their judgments. "Any participation in follow-up activities must prejudice the possibility of disinterested inspection in the future."

He warned that self-review, advocated by the Secondary Heads Association and the National Union of Teachers, could prevent parents getting an accurate picture of how their school is doing.

After the lecture, debate among the audience was remarkably polite and passionless considering the subject was education. Only one speaker, Gerald Grace, an education lecturer from Durham University, was brave enough to launch a wholehearted attack, accusing Mr Woodhead of an "insulting and condemnatory" approach to the teaching profession "which does nothing to establish the productive partnerships to improve standards". It would be a long time, said Mr Grace, before the inspectorate recovered from the chief inspector's "provocative and partial style". Mutters of "shame" arose from listeners in response to this.

Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers' and Lecturers, returned to the political poodle question, asking why Mr Woodhead had chosen Politeia, a right-wing forum, to air his views. Mr Woodhead replied that he would have been just as happy to use the Institute of Public Policy Research if he had been asked. "People become confused between context and substance. The context is not an indication of party-politicisation. My contribution was to set an agenda."

Nigel de Gruchy, another man who does not pull his punches, claimed the credit for coining the "political poodle" phrase over the way journalists were briefed when OFSTED published its report on the effects of class size. But he praised the report which he said conceded that class size did make a difference.

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