Marriage of maximum inconvenience?

6th June 1997 at 01:00
The Education Secretary cut short his honeymoon with the teaching profession last week by announcing a shotgun wedding between two men who appear to have about as much in common as the Pope and Dr Ian Paisley.

Chris Woodhead, chief inspector and flamboyant scourge of trendy teachers,and Professor Tim Brighouse, who recently accused Woodhead of imposing a "reign of terror" on schools, are to join hands as vice-chairs of a new task force to raise standards.

The official version of the reasoning behind this bizarre pairing is that it is a bold move signalling the dawn of a new era of co-operation between warring factions in education. But headteachers meeting in Scarborough last week found the inclusion of Mr Woodhead in the brave new world impossible to stomach and passed a vote of no confidence in him. David Blunkett responded by asking them to have faith: "If you are not with us, then step aside because cynicism is corrosive in the education service ... let no one, no sceptic, no cynic, no energy sapper, erode the enthusiasm that currently exists."

Mr Blunkett is not nave and can hardly have been surprised by the orgy of speculation among educationists and the media about the purpose of the joint appointment and whether it can possibly work. The most popular theory is still that it is an attempt to bring Mr Woodhead firmly under the Education Secretary's control - in contrast with his position under the previous Government where he appeared to have more influence than Gillian Shephard - as a prelude to easing him out of power without damaging the Government's macho stance on poor teachers.

According to a spokesman, Mr Woodhead only agreed to accept the post after being assured by Mr Blunkett that "his independence would not be curtailed or restrained in any way". This implies that he would resign from the task force if the other members attempted to gag him. But for the chief inspector and declared enemy of failing schools to storm out of a task force dedicated to raising standards would look odd and might make his position as chief inspector precarious. Mr Woodhead himself was unavailable for comment this week as he was on a visit to Japan.

Details of how the task force will work and how it will relate to the new Standards and Effectiveness Unit headed by Michael Barber, the Office for Standards in Education and the Department for Education and Employment are still unclear. Nor have its other members (thought to be about a dozen) yet been named, apart from Sue Pearson, head of Lache County Infants in Chester.

According to parliamentary sources, before the decision to create the task force was made, there was another plan to subsume OFSTED into a larger school standards body, which would have put the chief inspector under an even tighter rein.

The second theory is that Tony Blair is anxious to disassociate New Labour from Mr Brighouse, whom he regards as carrying too much old-fashioned municipal socialist baggage, and that the task force will be dominated by Mr Woodhead.

Although Mr Brighouse says that this view is just as likely as the other version, it was seen as less credible by academics and politicians contacted by The TES. Liberal democrat education spokesman Don Foster's reaction was typical: "Mr Woodhead's wings have been clipped. My interpretation is that they are trying to sideline him , but I think they have chosen the wrong vehicle to do it." One senior educationist said he thought the Government was still acting like the Opposition : "They are being excessively cautious, looking over their shoulders at public opinion, trying to control Woodhead by keeping him on board. In fact, they have a huge majority and can do what they like - they could sack him altogether."

But on Tuesday the picture became still muddier when it newspaper reports, based on lobby briefings, claimed that an hour-long meeting Tony Blair and Chris Woodhead at Downing Street signalled the Prime Minister's wholehearted backing of the Woodhead camp.

Speaking on Tuesday, Professor Brighouse was doing his best to put a positive gloss on the situation. "He [Mr Woodhead] said he was confident he'll be able to work with me, and I guess he meant it. It would have come to a pretty pass if committees could only be staffed by people of similar minds."

He said that he and Mr Woodhead had travelled home on the same Tube together after being told of their joint appointment last week: "We got on the tube together and were bouncing ideas off each other. It was good fun." Their first formal meeting has yet to be arranged. He added that while Mr Woodhead would have to adjust to having two roles, so would he.

"There will be occasions when I won't agree with what has been decided but will have to go along with it. So will he. The crucial thing is to unlock teachers' sense of energy and drive."

Professor Ted Wragg said he "takes Mr Blunkett at face value when he said he wants all points of view valued" but he doubted whether Labour would find it easy to restrain the chief inspector. "Chris Woodhead's strategy in the past has been to go over the head of the person he is supposed to be working with or for, to find out who is calling the shots and cultivate them. He also tends to direct his comments at the media. "

Peter Mortimore, director of the Institute of Education, sounded doubtful about the role of the task force: "We don't know its precise remit or its relationship to the Standards and Effectveness Unit. I hope it does not get muddled up with the new procedures for dealing with incompetent teachers and that it does capture the hope that teachers felt when Labour won."

Chris McDonnell, who proposed the motion of no confidence in Mr Woodhead at the National Association of Head Teachers' Scarborough conference, told The TES that the Government was jeopardising the green shoots of goodwill that had been springing up in the profession since May 1. "It was so nice to think that we were actually going to be listened to again; there's a positive feeling in schools. But Mr Woodhead's appointment could squash that feeling of hope. It feels like a slap in the face."

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