'I did my best. I'm not brooding about failure'

30th September 2011 at 01:00
The bane of teachers' lives and the most famous HMI of them all, Chris Woodhead is now disabled by motor neurone disease. While he supports Michael Gove's direction of travel, he tells Joseph Lee that he believes the outlook for our education system is grim

For the last decade, since he resigned as Ofsted chief inspector, Chris Woodhead has been regarded as a sort of king-across-the-water for traditionalists in education. Over the same period, he now believes, his body has been progressively under attack by motor neurone disease.

If he is right about when the disease struck - his formal diagnosis only came in 2006, and he went public two years ago - then he is on the wrong side of the actuarial odds: 90 per cent of people with motor neurone disease are dead within five years. He is making plans to die at a time of his choosing.

In this light, it is disarming to see how cheerfully he writes off his career as a failure. "I think I've lost completely," he says with a smile. "I think I've been totally defeated, on the evidence of what I read in the Times Educational Supplement."

Just to hear him talk, it would be hard to guess that he is seriously ill. He has lost none of his mental sharpness, and if anything he seems to smile more than he used to as he dishes out his provocations and tackles the controversies.

But the first sign of how the disease has affected him is already there as you pass the wooden ramp on the stairs, which allows his wheelchair to negotiate the beautiful, warren-like Georgian house in Ludlow that he and his wife Christine have been restoring from a shell. He cannot walk or move his arms now, he says.

Although he has more common ground with current education secretary Michael Gove than with any of his last six predecessors, he says they have little contact. He did send Mr Gove a copy of his 2009 book, A Desolation of Learning, which Mr Woodhead says was well received.

His report card of the Coalition's performance so far is mixed: he praises Mr Gove's commitment to "the knowledge curriculum", to facts and dates over abstract skills, and for introducing greater competition through free schools (though he criticises the Government for lacking the confidence to move all the way to a voucher system).

But he says: "When Gove says that everybody could go to university or implies that they should go to university, I think he's bonkers." For similar reasons, he thinks the English Baccalaureate is a mistake: it entrenches what he sees as the unrealistic expectations of comprehensive education.

"I fear that if the league tables are going to be driven by the EBac performance, then schools are going to ensure that more and more kids do the five subjects, and that will play down vocational subjects," he says.

He was happy to see low-quality GNVQs taken out of the "nonsense" league tables. But he sees pressure on schools to force students with little aptitude to persist in academia as a repeat of the mistakes of the past. Referring to his former teaching days, he says: "We were trying to make the students what they could not be. The EBac might have that result and I think that would be very negative, very damaging."

His outlook for education is bleak. His system of inspection was abandoned shortly after he stood down. (Although he admits: "My whole vision is predicated on the belief that there are enough good inspectors, and you might well poke me on that and say it isn't true - it probably isn't.")

He deplores the national curriculum elevating themes, inter-disciplinary links and skills above subject knowledge. And far too few teachers have been struck off for incompetence - at the last count it was 16, with a further 45 receiving a lesser sanction. "I'm hard put to be very optimistic about the current state of play," he says.

Mr Woodhead gives the impression of enjoying his maverick reputation, and when people disagree with him he is inclined to imply his outsider views are too hot to handle. "In a lot of the basic arguments there's not much between me and Michael Gove. It's inevitable, though, that he's working in a political context and there's only so much you can do," he says.

But it is an odd argument, because he simultaneously believes that most people agree with his common-sense view of education. If that is the case, it is hard to see what the political cost would be of a 100 per cent pro- Woodhead policy.

Take his assessment of teachers, who often resisted and resented his famous claim that 15,000 of them were incompetent. Initially, he says, the assessment was based on extrapolations from inspection grades for departments such as music with only one teacher, which seems to stretch the evidence. But he says later that inspections confirmed the findings.

"I think the teaching profession does let itself down," he says. "If there were more honesty about poor performance then people would take teachers more seriously. And I think the teacher unions, in particular the general secretaries, are a huge negative influence on public perception of the profession. They're not prepared to acknowledge that anything is wrong, that any changes are necessary. It always seems to me they're defending the lowest common denominator."

While teachers may refuse to accept that he is right about their own performance, he believes they mostly support his resistance to fashionable nonsense. "I think most teachers do agree with me. I bet if you did a straw poll of teachers in Shropshire on `how important are meta-cognitive skills?' you would get some interesting responses that would be on my side," he says, referring to a feature of the new curriculum proposed by the Royal Society of Arts, which he disdains. "But if you haven't got your meta-cognitive skills honed there's no hope for you in the 21st-century global economy."

The answer to how he can have the support of a silent majority and yet make no impact on education policy, as he believes, is that he says education policy has been captured by an unrepresentative minority.

"The people who have influence in education are the pundits, the professors, the teacher trainers, the local authority advisers, the people who advise Gove, and Steve Munby at the National College for School Leadership. These people, they promote all the things that I abhor," he says. "Your promotion up the greasy pole depends on your absorbing the ideas, however lunatic, that your seniors are promulgating."

But it is hard to explain why the silent majority stay silent while their views are trampled on, or how this cabal acquired so much influence if they have nothing to offer the public and profession at large. "There is a paradox, you're right," he says.

Mr Woodhead is full of paradoxes, and it seems characteristic of him to acknowledge the contradiction and leave it there, like a challenge. A defender of academic standards who regularly clashed with academics. A professor who is bored by research. An educationalist who is not interested in the business of education.

"I did my best, I'm not brooding about failure," he says. He is kept busy working as chairman of Cognita, a chain of private schools, and he is still in demand as a pundit. He is a professor of education at Buckingham University (although he admits, "I don't do very much at Buckingham, never did"). He says: "I enjoyed my time, I did what I could. If people haven't picked up the baton, then so be it - they will realise their mistake in due course. Say `he laughed' at that point." And he does.

As he tells it, Chris Woodhead never meant to work in education. He might never have become a teacher if his application to study for a PhD after taking a degree in English literature had not been stalled by a reference delayed in the post. So, in need of a job, he tried teaching, picking a school in Shrewsbury to be within reach of the mountains of North Wales in his free time.

He taught for three years at the Priory School for Boys - its site is now occupied by Shrewsbury Sixth-Form College - in the grammar-school system that he had grown up in. These days, he says some of his favourite memories of teaching took place there.

War on two fronts

But he was drawn by the rise of the comprehensive movement to teach in Newent Community School - a former grammar school in Gloucestershire that became one of the first purpose-built comprehensives - and Gordano School near Bristol.

He struggled to instil interest in Shakespeare among pupils who had trouble reading, and says it began to plant doubts in his mind about mixed-ability teaching. "I can remember very vividly the frustration I felt, the frustration some of the more motivated kids in the class felt, the more able kids, because all my efforts were focused on trying to contain kids for whom it was just wrong; it was inappropriate."

But he says his real conversion did not come until later. "At the time, when I went into teaching, I was a child of the Sixties - I believed in utopian, egalitarian solutions, and the comprehensive school was part of that." He describes his move into teacher training as another accident, whereby visiting his trainees on their placements he began to change his mind about comprehensive education.

At some point, though, ambition must have played its part as he rose through the ranks of local authorities and government quangos before he took the job of chief inspector.

For the first three years, he went head to head with the unions. But for most of his term, he was fighting a war on two fronts: against those in the profession who disagreed with him, and with a government he was increasingly at odds with.

He has been reported as saying that he could not be sacked by Labour because they would look soft on standards. ("I can't remember, but I might have said it. If I didn't, I wish I had.")

While he says Tony Blair genuinely shared his concern for standards, he had less trust in David Blunkett. "Blunkett never said to me: `Shut up, or I'll sack you.' There used to be some group of us, the great and the good who used to meet together every term or twice every term. And increasingly no one wanted to talk to me. I did become a pariah," he says.

"But they were too frightened of it ever leaking that I had been told I had to toe the line, because the chief inspector was meant to be independent."

In A Desolation of Learning, he describes his role as being like a lightning rod for political controversy, and says he was happy to draw fire from Blair and Blunkett to smooth the way of changes to the school system until he lost faith in their direction. "Once I came to the conclusion that what they were doing didn't work - and now most teachers, most people would agree with me it didn't - I thought, time to go."

The burden of jargon

He denies suffering any personal toll from the public criticism, which sometimes became outright abuse ("fatuous", "garbage", "the first of Her Majesty's chief inspectors to attain the doubtful reward of national celebrity").

"I like to be liked by people I admire. That's very important to me. But I don't know whether it's arrogance or what: it doesn't concern me if people that I'm not close to or people I don't have respect for slag me off. I never lost any sleep about any of the criticisms that were levelled at me."

One of those people whose opinion he cares about is the Oxford Professor of Poetry, Geoffrey Hill, frequently hailed as Britain's greatest living poet, with whom he has formed a friendship after using the poet's words as both epigraph and title for his book.

At one point in our discussion, Mr Woodhead compares arguments in education to literary criticism. "It's a bit like literary criticism, it's about engaging with the words on the page, or the words coming out of someone's mouth and revealing what is sensible or not sensible." It seems like a revealing analogy, and I wonder how much his attitude to educational debate is driven by a hatred of its jargon-laden language.

"Ninety-nine point nine per cent. Seriously. I hate sloppiness, I hate self-indulgence, I hate sentiment. I want clarity, I want intelligence, I want a genuine, profound appeal. I don't get it very often in the world of education."

This seems at the heart of the contradiction between his love of academic rigour and what I suggest is a streak of anti-intellectualism: he is only really comfortable in the arts faculty, and the social sciences only irritate him. An avowed critic claimed he once told a colleague, "Numbers, I don't do." A mention of Cognita's accounts prompts him to say: "I don't understand them."

He rejects the "anti-intellectual" label, but says: "I sort of know what you mean. Somehow, I'm caricatured as this saloon-bar, disgusted of Tunbridge Wells."

Listening to the customer

There is something unfair about that - retired colonels in the Home Counties do not have modern art abstracts on their walls or friends who are notoriously complex and allusive poets. But they still probably feel the same way as Mr Woodhead about education research.

He says: "Your assumption is that there is anything intellectual about academic research. I'm sure there are exceptions and I could probably think of some if you gave me long enough. But by and large, I think most educational research is written to feather the nest of the researcher - point one. And two, it tells you more about the ideological prejudices of the researcher than it does the thing being researched. Therefore, I'm not very interested in it.

"I asked David Hargreaves years ago - he's a researcher par excellence - which bits of research have really influenced public policy or professional behaviour? He couldn't think of any either."

Professor Hargreaves, from Roehampton University's department of education, says this account is "economical". At the time, he said the work which produces real impact is usually the product of many researchers over a long period of time. Today, he says he would name Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black for their work on Assessment for Learning. But he adds: "Chris and I were both very critical of much educational research. The educational research community is insufficiently self-critical and so took umbrage at what either of us said, even though I tried to express myself less tendentiously and provocatively than did Chris."

Is it a matter of values for Mr Woodhead, then, when the evidence is in dispute? "Ultimately it is a matter of moral values when it comes to education, yes," he says, sounding a bit like his Victorian predecessor as schools inspector, Matthew Arnold. But it is not clear that the values at stake are moral as much as cultural: a defence of the high culture of the last two centuries, "the best that is thought and written in the world," as Arnold put it.

The final controversy that Mr Woodhead has taken up is at odds with many people's idea of a moral purpose in education, however: he is, as the phrase goes, intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich from it. His advocacy of the for-profit model came under pressure when Cognita, which runs 42 schools in the UK and abroad, ran into criticism from someone who could hardly be accused of lacking either hard-nosed business sense or a social mission: Chris Cooper-Hohn. A parent at the Cognita- owned Southbank International School in London, he runs a pound;6.8 billion hedge fund and is Britain's most generous philanthropist. He and other parents accused Cognita of "milking" the school for profit, underpaying staff and failing to invest.

Mr Woodhead says the dispute, which blew up earlier this year, has been resolved: "We are great mates now." That bonhomie came at a cost: Cognita has promised more pay for staff, a pound;1 million investment in each of its three sites and pound;20 million for a future new campus. But to his way of thinking, the episode shows the strength of for-profit education: businesses have to listen to their customers.

He declines to say how much he makes personally from the venture, but says: "I earn more money than I did as chief inspector." In 1998, his salary was reported as pound;115,000.

He admits the for-profit cause is not popular. "I don't think I've got professional opinion with me, certainly not within the independent sector. The notion of making money out of education is seen as a dreadful thing by many HMC (Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference) independent school heads. I think theirs is a very irrational position," he says, arguing that surpluses run up by charitable schools are scarcely different from profits.

He goes further, as is his wont: that charitable schools, which are increasingly pressured to offer bursaries to poorer students or to help run academies in order to keep their tax perks, are abusing the trust of fee-paying parents by using their money to fund other people's education.

"I think that's wrong," he says. "They should all give up charitable status and tell the Government to get lost and concentrate on the education of their children. The more they're sucked into the sweaty embrace of ministers, the more they will compromise their independence," he says.

What might seem to be the purest form of self-interest, profit, is turned into a point of principle. But it is clear that pragmatic concerns loom large: Cognita is an investment to provide for his family after he is gone. Like many venture capital investments, the payoff only comes when they find a buyer, which may take more years than he has left. As he puts it: "They've got to sell the wretched company, and I've got to live long enough - if I don't, Christine will."

When he first revealed his illness, he rejected the option of Dignitas, the Swiss clinic for assisted dying: footage of someone's last moments accompanied by people singing Beatles songs had set off his anti-hippie alarm. A recent documentary by author and Alzheimer's patient Terry Pratchett, which featured a man with motor neurone disease who had agreed for his death to be filmed, has changed his mind, however.

"It was very dignified," he says. "His wife was there and they sat on the sofa together. It was 30 seconds or so, and he was coughing a bit and he looked in some discomfort, but I thought it wasn't a bad way to go."

But he regards it as an outrage and a failure of politicians that terminally ill patients have to travel abroad to end their lives in a manner of their choosing. He says: "The thing that worries me about assisted dying is I don't think our politicians are ever going to have the balls. Maybe I'm wrong. They've decided that there could be a badger cull; maybe they could agree, too, that there should be a cull of the terminally ill!"

A final decision

His views have been shaped by his parents' deaths (he suspects his father may have had undiagnosed motor neurone disease; it can be hereditary in rare cases).

"The last five years of their lives, increasingly they felt: `Why can't we be allowed to die? Why can't we just hold hands together and go?' They became increasingly irascible as they became increasingly desperate about their plight," he says. "Their experience, and my experience watching them, and my experience now, makes me feel that there are no persuasive arguments against."

The dilemma is that if he waits too long, he says he may no longer be capable even of swallowing the sodium pentobarbital used by the clinic. "It is an issue for me, an incredibly difficult issue, in fact, as to what point in time you decide you've had enough and you kill yourself. The decision cannot be entirely your own: Christine, my wife, Tamsin, my daughter, maybe even my granddaughter, the oldest one - they've all got views. If it weren't for them I might already have said I'd had enough."

A trip earlier this summer to the Scottish islands was also a reminder of how much there is to live for. "It was really good, the weather was fine, but it was also bittersweet: sitting at Glenbrittle, which is a little hamlet at the foot of the Cuillin Hills in Skye, looking up at the ridge I'd walked and . yeah. But I'm 65 in October: at 65, it's a good innings. It's not as long as I'd have liked but I've done a lot of the things I wanted to."

Earlier in our conversation, I mentioned a standard interview question about regrets. He seizes on it now: "The main regret I've got is I spent too much time on education. If I were living my life again, seriously, I would spend much more time in the mountains.

"There's a peninsula that sticks out from the mainland in Scotland towards Skye; it's inaccessible by road, and I've been there, climbed the two main mountains. But I would love to spend more time there, exploring the glens. I'd love to learn to sail properly, to sail around the Hebrides, in particular.

"So there's a lot of things which I haven't done in my life, or have done a little of, but because of education I haven't done enough of. My message to all TES readers is don't think about education, don't read the Times Educational Supplement - read books on mountains and art and poetry."


- On sending "everyone" to university: "I think Gove's bonkers"

- On incompetent teachers: "If there were more honesty about poor performance, people would take teachers more seriously"

- On pundits, professors, trainers and LA advisers: "These people, they promote all the things that I abhor"

- On working with David Blunkett: "He never said to me: `Shut up or I'll sack you'"

- On popularity: "I like to be liked by people I admire"

- On his hatred of jargon: "I want clarity, I want intelligence. I don't get it very often in the world of education"

- On the private sector: "Independents should all give up charitable status and tell the Government to get lost"

- On his legacy: "There's a lot of things I haven't done in my life, or have done a little of, because of education".

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