`He set England's education agenda for two decades'

26th June 2015 at 01:00
`Combative' former Ofsted chief Sir Chris Woodhead dies at 68

Sir Chris Woodhead died this week, aged 68. The controversial former Ofsted chief inspector was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2006.

An outspoken critic of teachers, he was reviled by a significant proportion of the profession during his six years in charge at the watchdog. But others credit him with kick-starting improvements in school standards. Helen Amass gathers the views of those who were around at the time.

Sir Michael Barber, chief adviser on school standards in Tony Blair's government:

"I had the pleasure - and challenge - of working very closely with Chris Woodhead.This was one of the great experiences of my career. He was a formidable colleague, fiercely devoted to what he believed in and vigorous in pursuing those beliefs. He was a huge figure in English educational history and the single biggest influence on education in England in the 1990s. By making standards central, he set the agenda for two decades."

Judith Judd, former TES editor:

"A journalist's dream. He spoke in short sentences and, unlike most educationalists, eschewed jargon. His confidence landed him in some tricky situations, most famously when he told an audience of trainee teachers that relationships between teachers and pupils could be `educative and experiential on both sides'. Standards of literacy and numeracy did rise during his time as chief inspector and the number of failing schools fell. Whether his combative style played a part in that, we shall never know."

Sir Andrew Carter, headteacher of South Farnham School in Surrey:

"He represented quite a change and it was a shock for many schools. Like all pioneers, he had a lot of criticism levelled at him, but much of it was really intended for the inspection system as a whole. He led the way and was a brave man. In many ways, he was the right man in position at the right time. His aim was to wake up the teaching profession to the fact that education costs money and that the public needs to know what it is getting. He did that. Today, we accept a tougher regime because of his work."

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union throughout Sir Chris' time at Ofsted:

"He made a couple of huge errors. One was saying that 15,000 teachers were incompetent. It was probably a fair representation of incompetence in any profession. But it put everyone's backs up. The second mistake was that he politicised Ofsted. For these reasons alone, I do not believe that history will look back on him kindly."

Sir Mike Tomlinson, former Ofsted chief inspector who worked as Sir Chris' deputy:

"He drew attention to the need for strong leadership and for quality teaching. These weren't things that had been discussed much before. He changed the way that we talk about education. We didn't always agree on everything, but on the main points we did. Not a lot of people know that he was a very generous man. He was a pleasure to work with."

David Blunkett, Labour's education secretary when Sir Chris resigned in 2000:

"Despite the fact that Chris Woodhead and I had our disagreements, I believe his contribution to the debate on improvements in the standard and consistency of education provision across the country was profound. There is no doubt in my mind that 90 per cent of the time he was right in believing that we should have expected much more for those youngsters who got much less from the education system than they deserved. It was always the 10 per cent where Chris believed that he was right and much of the rest of the world was wrong that led to so many finding his style abrasive."

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted's current chief inspector:

"I greatly appreciated the courage and bravery he showed in confronting a complacent education establishment. He said the uncomfortable things that needed to be said."

Sir Chris Woodhead, 1946-2015

Sir Chris Woodhead was considered by many to be the bane of teachers' lives and was the first schools inspector to become a household name.

As Ofsted's chief inspector of schools from 1994 to 2000, he was best known for his fierce opposition to "progressive" educational theories - which he had supported earlier in his career - and his belief in "traditional" teaching methods.

An outspoken and controversial figure, Sir Chris clashed frequently with teachers, unions and politicians. Much of his criticism focused on poor teaching - he once claimed there were "15,000 incompetent teachers" working in the profession.

Supporters saw him as a radical reformer tackling an overly defensive profession but critics argued that he was out of touch, rarely praised good teachers and damaged morale.

Christopher Anthony Woodhead was born in Cockfosters, London on 20 October 1946. A graduate of the University of Bristol, where he also earned a PGCE, his career in education began as an English teacher at his old school, Wallington County Grammar School in Surrey.

He moved on to the Priory School in Shrewsbury from 1969-72 but, drawn by the rise of the comprehensive movement, he took a job as assistant head of English at Newent Community School in Gloucestershire. He then spent 1974-76 as head of English at Gordano School, a comprehensive near Bristol.

As a child of the 1960s, Sir Chris said he believed in "utopian, egalitarian solutions" but began to have doubts about mixed-ability teaching when he struggled to instil an interest in Shakespeare among pupils who had trouble reading.

Sir Chris was ambitious and rose through the ranks of local authorities and government quangos before taking the job of chief inspector at Ofsted in 1994.

From 1997 he fought a war against teachers who disagreed with him and a government he was increasingly at odds with. He said that Tony Blair, then prime minister, shared his concern for standards, but he trusted David Blunkett, education secretary at the time, much less.

In 1999, he came under pressure to resign when his ex-wife claimed he had had an affair with a pupil when he was a teacher at Gordano. However, Sir Chris insisted that the relationship had developed several years after both had left the school.

He said it was finally time to step down when he concluded that what the government was doing "didn't work". After resigning from Ofsted in 2000, Sir Chris became a champion for education traditionalists. His 2002 book, Class War: the state of British education, heavily criticised the system he had left.

Soon afterwards he was appointed a professor of education at the private University of Buckingham. He founded the private school chain Cognita in 2004.

Sir Chris was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2006 but remained a provocative commentator. Pundits, professors, trainers and local authority advisers were all targets of his wrath, promoting "all the things that I abhor".

"I think I've been totally defeated on the evidence of what I read in the Times Educational Supplement," he told TES in a 2011 interview. But he added, with a laugh: "I did my best. I'm not brooding about failure. If people haven't picked up the baton, so be it - they will realise their mistake in due course."

He was knighted for services to education in 2011. In 2009, he said he would prefer to end his own life rather than suffer the indignities of the final stages of the disease. He was a patron of Dignity in Dying and campaigned for an assisted dying law.

A keen runner and rock-climber, Sir Chris told TES that his main regret was spending "too much time on education".

He leaves his wife, a daughter and two granddaughters.

Sir Chris Woodhead in his own words:

On teachers: "You tell me a profession where there aren't 5 per cent, 10 per cent of members who are incompetent. The strange thing about the public sector in general, and teaching in particular, is that no one will admit that there is this problem."

On class: "I think it would be unlikely that large numbers of grammar school kids would come from disadvantaged areas - the genes are likely to be better if their parents are teachers, academics, lawyers, whatever. And the nurture is likely to be better."

On Ofsted: "I couldn't put my hand on my heart and say that every Ofsted report published in my time sparkled with helpful insights. Too many, if I'm honest, were dull, were written very much to a formula, and were unlikely therefore to contribute much to a headteacher's thinking."

On teachers sleeping with pupils: "I think human beings can get themselves into messes and I think those messes can sometimes be experiential and educative on both sides."

On educational research:

"We already spend some pound;50 million to pound;60 million every year on educational research and I, for one, think we see precious little benefit from it.We need to be constantly on our guard against the self-interest of the expert."

On state schooling: "All schools should become private. The lesson of the past 10 years is that state control does not work."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today