Map of influences redrawn

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Geraldine Hackett unravels the complex post-election power web of political and personal allegiances

The first shots in the turf wars that are erupting over the appointment of both Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, and Tim Brighouse, the chief education officer in Birmingham, to the national task force on standards, expose the strife in the system.

As with all serious ideological divides, political differences are intertwined with personal. The chief inspector represents the tough approach on standards that relies on weeding out weak teachers and identifying the failings of schools. In place of "naming and shaming", Mr Brighouse advocates encouraging schools to perform better by allowing them to set their targets.

However, it has not been Mr Woodhead's espousal of a return to more traditional forms of teaching or his insistence on greater emphasis on the basics in primary schools that has made him such a controversial figure. The National Association of Head Teachers is not alone in claiming Mr Woodhead holds the teaching profession in contempt.

According to David Hart, the union's general secretary, the chief inspector has provoked outrage by such comments as: "Primary teachers regard whole-class teaching as dancing with the devil." (A remark made to the Institute of Directors.) Under the last administration, Mr Woodhead's power was bolstered by his judicious cultivation of researchers in the Number Ten Policy Unit and the championing of his views among the leader writers. Chief among his coterie of admirers is the Observer columnist, Melanie Phillips, but Mr Woodhead has also been successfully courted by the documentary makers with at least three starring roles in Panorama investigations of the state of education. Prince Charles reputedly thinks highly of him.

However, even before the election, Ms Phillips was expressing concern in her column that Labour might have it in mind to rein in the chief inspector and promote Mr Brighouse. In particular, she derided the prospect of Labour being able to achieve a consensus. There are, she wrote, bitter and fundamental disagreements about the purpose of education and the means of delivering it.

As she predicted, the chief inspector is likely to be trapped in the cross-currents. The centre of the new power web is Professor Michael Barber, the head of the standards and effectiveness unit that is being created within the Department for Education, who shares with Mr Woodhead an enthusiasm for rock climbing.

In the web that is being woven, Prof Barber has a direct route to David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, and has the key role in co-ordinating the work of the task forces. No less impressive is the informal network within which he operates. Prof Barber has links with Tony Blair (and his policy adviser on education, David Miliband) and has contributed to his speeches. He lives in Hackney, just over the border from Blair's home patch in Islington.

Prof Barber also has the advantage of being a veteran of the rivalries in the industry that school improvement has become. The prestigious education professorship at Keele passed from Brighouse to Barber, when Prof Brighouse moved on to Birmingham. His last job was at the Institute of Education in London, where Prof Peter Mortimore, a key voice on school effectiveness, is director.

The chosen people for the range of Government task forces include David Reynolds, professor of education at Newcastle, who heads the numeracy team. Prof Reynolds is on the Woodhead wing of the debate, in that his research on Taiwan pointed to the success that can be achieved when schools concentrate on the basics.

Such views are unlikely to be shared by Prof Brighouse, who believes in the power of giving schools greater responsibility for their own improvement. His accusation that the Office for Standards in Education is conducting "a reign of terror" is unlikely to ever be forgotten. With Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, he has put forward an alternative to the present inspection system that requires greater self-evaluation from schools.

The Brighouse camp is probably the largest, as it takes in most of the local education authorities and the teachers' unions. Fred Jarvis, the former general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, was treasurer of the fighting fund set up to cover the costs of Prof Brighouse's "nutter" libel case against the former Conservative Education Secretary, John Patten.

The formal and informal networks being put in place restrain the power of Mr Woodhead. Whether the search by ministers for consensus is a hopeless endeavour is about to be tested. The influence of the chief inspector may be on the wane, but he is likely to remain.

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