'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.

You can read the full article in the 30 September 2011 issue of TES.

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