Crushed by the criticism

24th May 1996 at 01:00
Carolyn Savjani digs through the humiliation dished out by Chris Woodhead to uncover buried praise. Well Mr Woodhead, are you going into the lions' den?" The question was put by a hopeful local newspaper reporter before the meeting.

"Not at all," replied the most vilified man in the teaching profession today. "I speak to headteachers all over the country and nine times out of ten I think the dialogue we have is extremely professional."

But downstairs the lions were waiting. Headteachers in the West Midlands had been waiting for some time for such an opportunity.

"I call him Mr Woodenhead," one told me the week before the session earlier this month, organised by the local branch of the National Association of Headteachers. "He drives me to distraction," admitted another.

But today, surely, it was good news? "We have not produced these reports in order to pillory and humiliate teachers in schools," Woodhead insisted.

So the recent stream of critical reports by the Office for Standards in Education is intended to build up the profession?

"It may not feel like that, but the spirit is one of trying to identify problems, because until problems are uncovered, solutions cannot be found. "

It was a point with which several delegates took issue. You see, it does "feel like that" - and it hurts.

"Teachers take the criticisms to heart. As Chief Inspector, isn't it your responsibility to be accountable for what goes out to the media, and accountable for the morale of the profession?" "We've been through tremendous change, it's amazing what we are achieving and it's not being celebrated. We are being castigated."

By now dear Mr Woodenhead was down to his shirt-sleeves. "I cannot be accountable for the morale in the profession," was his reply, to the dumbstruck dismay of his audience. "I think we have got to distinguish between self-confidence and self-delusion. Morale is important but to pretend everything is cosmically OK is to patronise all of you who know you are doing a good job." And instead of an apology he suggested a bet.

"If you ever hear me give a live interview and concentrate wholly on the negative, write to me and I'll send you a fiver," he offered. "I have often said there are three times as many excellent teachers as there are poor ones, but I don't apologise for drawing attention to the issue of incompetence. "

The lions finally pounced. "Can we have three things you think we are doing well? That might go in as headline news and then we might all feel better. "

A pause. And then, incredibly, it came.

"Firstly, you have had a huge agenda to wrestle with. You have wrestled with it miraculously well.

"Secondly, more often than not [oh, that inevitable qualification], when I visit schools I am impressed by the ability of the primary headteacher to lead the school with a genuine vision of the curriculum, to have real expectations of what the pupils can do, and to keep the finger on the pulse of what is happening in the classroom.

"Thirdly, I will end with a story against myself." And he told the tale of the demoralised head of a school in a deprived area of Plymouth, retiring early despite devoting his life to the profession, finally beaten by the harsh realities of life at the bottom of the league table.

"In situations like that you cope with a job that is so demanding, more demanding than any job anywhere. Whatever my insistence on standards, I understand and I congratulate you." Real praise at last, It's just a shame it's buried at the bottom of an article like this one.

Carolyn Savjani is a writer living in Coventry

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