Mr Blair, Machiavelli and me

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Josephine Gardiner detects 'a softening of the tone' as chief inspector Chris Woodhead mulls over morale and quality control. Guess who said this about the laggardly pace of educational reform: "I can understand the frustration. Your child, my child, only has one chance at school. Their one year as an infant in reception class; their one stab at A-level"? No, not Tony Blair, though it certainly owes much to the Labour leader's oratorial style. In fact it was the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, in a speech this week.

Mr Blair's promise made 10 days ago that the controversial chief inspector would keep his job under a Labour government has provoked plentiful speculation about the implications for Labour education policy, about whether a deal was struck and how. But equally interesting is where such a deal leaves Mr Woodhead, and the extent to which he may or may not have to change his tune under Labour.

Mr Woodhead himself naturally refuses to comment on reports that he has recently been courting the Left, but, reading between the lines, it is possible to discern a softening of the tone, an anxiety to make clear that he does understand the onerous task teachers face - twice in the past fortnight he has referred to teachers as "the poor bloody infantry" - caught in the middle of other people's ideological battles. This echoes a comment made by Anthea Millett, chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, who said that teachers were "caught in a crossfire like civilians in someone else's wars"- Ms Millett and Mr Woodhead are not usually seen as having much in common.

Mr Woodhead also emphasises that the spotlight of the Office for Standards in Education's attention in the coming year will be on teacher training and local authorities, "Teachers are a product of the influences brought to bear on them, so it's important to develop our thinking on the inspection of training and the quality of LEA support."

In short, what we could be seeing is a discreet repositioning by Mr Woodhead in preparation for a Labour government. Labour, of course, would have run the risk of being seen to be soft on standards if Tony Blair had not come out in support of Mr Woodhead, but the party was embarrassed just days later when Tim Brighouse, chief education officer in Birmingham and, allegedly, a close adviser to Labour education spokesman David Blunkett, accused OFSTED of imposing a "reign of terror". Was the chief inspector at all worried by this, or by the possibility that Mr Blunkett might be tempted by Tim Brighouse's alternative version of inspection, involving more monitoring by schools and LEAs?

"No. I've had no communication with either Mr Blair or Mr Blunkett that leads me to believe that they would like us to change our approach to fit what Tim Brighouse seems to prefer. How Mr Brighouse can seriously use such hysterical language when according to a TES survey (last autumn) 82 per cent of heads believe inspection contributes to school improvement, I don't understand. " But he warned that "Labour will need to think about whether the public at large would feel that Tim Brighouse's approach to accountability could be trusted.

"I don't know about David Blunkett, but if I were Gordon Brown I would be looking with a beady eye at Mr Brighouse's proposals on salary hikes, classroom assistants and so on. They are not cost-neutral."

So Chris Woodhead insists that he has no reason to fear that the spectre of Old Labour will rise up to castrate OFSTED after the election, but he was careful to emphasise that OFSTED would be keeping a close eye on the quality of its own standards, making a surprising concession to his fiercest critics: "This means taking very seriously the anxieties expressed by people like Ted Wragg and Carol Fitz-Gibbon about consistency between inspection teams. "

Tony Blair and David Blunkett have both said that they want to enlist teachers in a "crusade to raise standards", an ambition which fits neatly enough with the chief inspector's declared aims, but how will teachers be persuaded to join such a crusade at a time when morale appears to be at an all time low, when droves of teachers are scrambling to leave the profession at the earliest opportunity, and when OFSTED and the chief inspector himself are accused of contributing to the same poor morale?

Chris Woodhead responds by questioning whether morale is really so very bad, in particular he takes issue with the survey published by The TES over the past two weeks, which found unprecedented levels of depression and apathy: "I'm sceptical about the methodology of focus groups, and whether this survey did capture genuinely the state of teacher's thoughts and feelings. If you sat me down and asked me whether I was overworked and underpaid, I'd probably say yes, too.

"I also worry about the impact of such messages on teachers. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you tell people often enough that they are marginalised victims, then they begin to feel like marginalised victims ... the profession has been presented in a negative way not just by the Daily Mail, Express and Telegraph, but also by those wanting to defend teachers."

Morale will only rise when "solutions are found to the problems, then the public will value teachers more and a virtuous circle will be created." Teachers should toughen up, he suggests, quoting Matthew Arnold: "The greatest gainers in a system of reporting which clearly states what teachers do and what they fail to do are the teachers. Not one which drowns alike success and failure, the able and inefficient, in a common flood of vague approbation. "

Media interest in Mr Woodhead's disgust at the big vote for Tolkien in the Waterstone's survey (see story below) swamped the substance of his Tuesday lecture. It was a plea to Labour not to reverse the "hearts and minds battle" for the intellectual soul of education by yielding to the education establishment. It also contained intriguing attacks on the Right.

The "elevation of parental choice into an absolute" through a voucher system would create "very real problems" and disadvantage children from deprived backgrounds whose parents "would have neither the will nor the means to exercise a 'positive preference' . . . the market does not in itself guarantee high standards" because "we know from our inspection of independent schools that some parents spend a great deal of money to buy their children a very sub-standard education".

David Blunkett is warned that Labour's emphasis on advice and support could "generate a new set of orthodoxies which will become endowed with a spurious authority". He also attacks the quality of educational research and the "school improvement industry" and accuses university education lecturers and writers of perpetuating ideas that "do not stand up to intellectual scrutiny". Mr Woodhead ended the lecture with a quote from Machiavelli.

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