Gladiators vs Mystic Meg

7th February 1997 at 00:00
Josephine Gardiner sees old wounds re-opened as 1,000 watch the Wragg-Woodhead encounter. There was a sense of sadistic anticipation in the lecture theatre at London's Institute of Education on Tuesday night as almost 1,000 people gathered to watch education's most famous gladiators tear into each other.

The audience was expecting (hoping?) that the showdown between the chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, and his most trenchant critic, Professor Ted Wragg, would end in a bloodbath; what we actually got was a display of vivid verbal pyrotechnics from both parties. The tone was carefully good-humoured, but the wit occasionally became sharp enough to wound.

The protagonists were debating the motion that "The current approach to inspection, league tables and testing is detrimental to the raising of educational standards."

Ted Wragg kicked off by attacking the "robotic" inspection framework as it exists under OFSTED, arguing that a national and local inspection system that put more emphasis on advice and support would have more success in securing allegiance of the teaching profession. He went on to criticise the damaging effects of the market ethos in education and the "spurious exactitude" of national tests.

Mr Woodhead responded by reasserting himself as the champion of parents' "basic democratic right" to know what is going on in schools, quoting, as he is fond of doing, a TES survey showing that 82 per cent of heads thought their inspections had been a good thing.

He laid into the "Alice in Wonderland logic" of those who questioned OFSTED's right to publish reports in case their conclusions happened to coincide with Government policy. But what was odd about the chief inspector's speech was the number of times he recycled the most colourful chunks of his own annual lecture from last February. The words were virtually identical.

The accusation that OFSTED has lost its political independence, he said, was "an aggrieved mantra which is substituted for any rational engagement", and "the more vociferous the cries that we have compromised our independence, the more confident I will be that we are . . . in touch with the interests of the people who use the service." Powerful and elegant phrasing, but we'd heard it before.

When Ted Wragg took back the microphone to reply, he began to draw a little blood from the chief inspector. First, he accused Mr Woodhead of "knocking down straw windmills" - attacking targets that nobody was defending. "Who is against parents' need to know? Who is against the publishing of reports? Nobody wants to return to the previous system when schools were inspected just once every 14 years or so. It's not the exclusive role of Chris Woodhead to represent parents" - or to suggest that they need a champion to protect them from teachers, he said.

He also pointed out that the TES survey quoted by the chief inspector had also asked heads whether they thought Mr Woodhead was contributing to school improvement. "Eighty per cent said No."

At this point Mr Woodhead began to look a bit grim, and when Prof Wragg went on to compare the chief inspector's extrapolations about numbers of incompetent teachers to the prophecies of Mystic Meg, his face turned stony.

The debate from the floor was disappointing because it was monopolised by the characters who always speak at these occasions, notably the education correspondent from Living Marxism in support of Mr Woodhead (does her editor know she's out?), several headteachers, both for and against the motion, and a spokesman from the Campaign for Real Education who seemed to be under the impression that the problems of William Tyndale school (the centre of controversy in 1976) were still a hot issue.

Mr Woodhead's finale included the statement that "the real message of my annual report is that standards are improving", but he clouded it with a repetition of his attack on the inspectorate: "We've got to recognise that some inspectors are shirking judgments - we need teams to be robust, impartial and rigorous."

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