From the Editor - The master maverick who prefers pessimism to hope

30th September 2011 at 01:00

It is difficult to get the measure of a man who is dying. Personal tragedy tends to nullify honesty as much as it soothes rancour. Chris Woodhead's disdain for the profession in which he has spent most of his career is probably reciprocated. But when he finally succumbs to the motor neuron disease destroying his body, the premature end of a vigorous mind will elicit sympathy even among his sternest critics.

However, as the flinty former chief inspector would almost certainly disapprove of pity even more than he does of TES, perhaps he will forgive a robust assessment of his views. It is 11 years since Professor Woodhead quit as head of Ofsted, after a series of spectacular rows with the then education secretary. In the years since he has made regular attacks on vacuous liberals, flabby thinkers and jargon jockeys. All of whom he blames for an education system that is insufficiently rigorous, hopelessly complacent and riddled with incompetent teachers.

It's clear that his roll-call of pet hates hasn't got any shorter (pages 30-35). Craven politicians, Luddite unions, partisan academics and deluded egalitarians are still targets for his scorn. Nor has the prospect of death softened his criticisms. But it does seem to have sapped his anger. "I've been totally defeated," he says cheerily, with the breezy satisfaction of a Jeremiah who has been proved right but won't be around to pick up the pieces.

Unsurprisingly, his outlook for education is bleak. He revels in his self- appointed role of fearless maverick, unafraid to take on vested interests and tell it like it is. Except, of course, that it often isn't like he says. Incompetent teachers may be a problem, but the quality of teaching in our schools is rising, not falling. Standards have not collapsed and are certainly better for more pupils than when he was a boy. Even the cabal of lefty pundits he loves to define himself against seems rather toothless and to belong to another era.

That is not to say that Professor Woodhead is always wrong. We may wrangle about the exact number of incompetent teachers, but he was one of the first establishment figures to highlight the problem and demand that it could no longer be ignored. And his fulminations against woolly government initiatives, fads, jargon and remorseless bureaucratisation are usually more on target than off. The world, however, has moved on and he hasn't.

"I did my best," he says. "I'm not brooding about failure." Perhaps he did. But how good of him was it to kick a profession that might have needed prodding but didn't deserve a battering? How brave of him was it to parrot the prejudices of the tabloids without attempting to inform or correct them?

There is a beguiling defeatism at the heart of Professor Woodhead's commentary. The world was better yesterday, there isn't much you can do with a lot of children, attempts to make a difference are dishonest or foolish or both. He points out that he had constructive things to say - on promoting best practice, for instance. But his criticism, so relentlessly negative and withering, seems calculated to diminish and undermine rather than stimulate and enhance. His undiluted pessimism seems to be the antithesis of what teaching should be about.

Professor Woodhead says he only became a teacher because his application to study a PhD was delayed in the post. Perhaps we, and he, would have been better off if the mail was as predictable as his discontents.


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