Clash of the titanic egos

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
Tim Brighouse, the chief education officer for Birmingham, took a big risk when - back in 1996 - he volunteered his authority as one of the first LEAs to be inspected. Confident that Birmingham schools had improved substantially since he took over in 1993, he hoped that Office for Standards in Education inspectors would back his judgments, and applaud his methods.

What he did not realise was that by the time the inspection came around, he and Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, would be serving uneasily together on a brand new standards task force - and that they would have achieved national prominence as representing two incompatible philosophies.

Tony Blair is on record as prescribing a combination of "pressure and support" for teachers in their efforts to raise standards in schools. OFSTED - and Chris Woodhead - tend to stress the "pressure" part of the equation. Without a public spotlight on where they are falling down on the job, schools, they believe, are unlikely to raise their game. Tim Brighouse, on the other hand, emphasises the importance of support. He believes in confidential advice, celebrating success, and management through encouragement and information rather than through censure. Even in these days of slimmed-down LEAs, Birmingham funds an active advisory and support service.

The carrot and the stick both have their advantages as motivators, and running an effective education system, local authority, school or classroom probably requires the well-judged use of both. But, unfortunately for British education, Professor Brighouse has become identified with one, and Mr Woodhead with the other.

What's more, the inspection report on Birmingham is part of the wider struggle to define the role of the LEA under a New Labour Government. Are local authorities a help or a hindrance in raising standards? If Birmingham, starting from a low level of achievement, and with a charismatic, well-informed, high-profile member of the education establishment at its helm, cannot substantially improve the performance of its schools over five years, are local education authorities worth having at all? Should the money which currently funds them and their support services go direct to schools instead? That Chris Woodhead is known to be a passionate opponent of LEAs, and increasingly influential in Government circles, adds an extra piquancy to the mix.

In the event, the inspectors' verdict - judiciously leaked in advance of the final meeting - is favourable. Standards are rising, though probably not as fast as Tim Brighouse would have wished. The authority is described in the final draft report of the inspection team as a "success story", effective and well-run, with a sense of purpose and a "carefully articulated rationale for the deployment of its services".

Questions are raised, however, as to how far Birmingham can be taken as a useful model for other areas, and whether a plethora of bright ideas has distracted schools from the main task in hand. There are a number of implicit criticisms of Tim Brighouse's personal style which did not, reportedly, appear in earlier versions of the draft.

Today, the inspectors and Brighouse's team meet in an attempt to thrash out a final version acceptable to both parties. This report has become very high stakes for both Brighouse and Woodhead. It has almost ceased to be about Birmingham; by now, it has more to do with the clash of giant egos, who gains most credibility in the eyes of ministers and, ultimately, the direction that future Government policy might take. There is likely to be a hard-fought battle behind those closed doors.

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