Going for a song?;Leading Article;Opinion

18th June 1999 at 01:00
This week's select committee report on the Office for Standards in Education went to a great deal of trouble to separate OFSTED from the man who leads it - chief inspector Chris Woodhead. At the launch of the report, a committee member went so far as to say that there was a danger of the "singer" getting in the way of the "song".

The "song" is the inspection process itself - the teams who inspect schools, and the role inspection plays in improving education. The "singer," of course, is Mr Woodhead, a man whose messages about cracking down on inadequate teachers struck a chord amongst the parents of middle England - ever-anxious about the educational progress of their children - and in the heart of the Prime Minister, who knows that a successful "knowledge society" cannot afford to waste the talent of so many young people. But the chief inspector's trenchant pronouncements have too frequently inspired fear and loathing among the very teachers who must become the backbone of Labour's world-class education system.

Chris Woodhead, in spite of his numerous jobs in the educational bureaucracy, has never been a conventional bureaucrat. He is more of an adroit operator in the corridors of power. He has remade the office of chief inspector in his own image and used it as a platform for promoting the importance of high standards in education. He is a skilled populist communicator and an experienced media manipulator who enjoys wrong-footing his opponents, often reducing them to impotent fuming from the sidelines. He also has a strong instinct for where power lies. His close relationships with the Prime Minister and the Prince of Wales have stood him in good stead when his back has been against the wall.

Ministers may choose to ignore most of the MPs' criticisms. But they are concerned that Woodhead's public credibility has been affected by the accusation that he slept with one of his sixth formers when he was an English teacher in the 1970s, and that poor relations with the teachers are making it hard to modernise the profession. Although they are backing the chief inspector publicly, it looks unlikely that he will serve out his contract.

But who could succeed him? Step forward, the man or woman who understands education but isn't part of the establishment, and who can wow Daily Mail readers while charming the teachers and keeping up the pressure on standards. Applications welcome.

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