New kid in the flock

8th December 2000 at 00:00
Chris Woodhead is branching out as a newspaper columnist. Will he survive, or will he find the media nest already a little crowded? Chris Bunting reports

SO, Chris Woodhead has decided to join the dawn chorus: the incessant chattering of columnists and commentators that greets us every morning on the opinion pages of our national press.

There will have been some fluffing of plumage among the regular squawkers at Mr Woodhead's arrival on their already crowded tree.

His name alone is likely to attract attention for a few months at least. But the question his new competitors will be asking is whether the erstwhile chief inspector can hold readers' interest once his celebrity and insider insights have been exhausted.

The problem is that his central area of expertise, education, is already a staple of the columnists. An article on the subject is banged out almost every day and much of the content, particularly among the tabloids, is parroted from Mr Woodhead's own well-known views: teachers must stop "failing" children, exam standards must not be devalued and "vacuous" liberal ideas must be driven out of teaching.

Among the more elevated columnists, Melanie Phillips at the Sunday Times has staked out a position that is closely associated with Woodhead's own. She has for many years been pulling her hair out in print about his pet hate: the "flabby deluded orthodoxy" of "liberal McCarthyism".

But she is not alone. At Woodhead's new perch, the Daily Telegraph, Janet Daley and Sion Simon have already stolen some of his best lines. Even Polly Toynbee at the Guardian, a partisan of the left, has backed his approach of "telling the truth about bad teachers and bad schools".

Perhaps because of his startling success in popularising his beliefs, Woodhead is going to have difficulty distinguishing his efforts from the mass of comment. He could, of ourse, follow the example of some of the more readable commentators on education - notably, Ted Wragg in The TES - who use humour to make points in an overheated debate. But is the man once vilified as education's "witchfinder general" really going to transform himself into a spinner of whimsical fancy?

Maybe not. More likely, judging by Mr Woodhead's work for the Sunday Telegraph's books section, where he has recently shown more interest in accounts of mountain adventure than in tomes about teaching, we will see him striking out into more general commentary after an initial, headline-grabbing assault on New Labour politics.

We have yet to see whether he has the variety and complexity of thought to compete with genuine heavyweights of political opinion writing, like Hugo Young at the Guardian and Simon Jenkins at the Times, but there are reasons why he is unlikely to be a flop in his new career.

He has already demonstrated a talent for thinking the unthinkable (remember 15,000 incompetent teachers?) and he certainly has a knack for the telling phrase (teacher-pupil sex can be "experiential and educative", apparently).

There are signs that Mr Woodhead is already learning some of the basic tricks of the trade of opinion hackery. Golden rule number one: never discard a good idea if it can be dusted off and recycled in another column.

In 1996, readers of The TES were treated to the following pithy introduction to an article by Mr Woodhead urging teachers to challenge tired ideas: "Simple fictions are the opium of the people," Frank Kermode once wrote.

Fast forward four years and the great man is chewing his pen, searching for a catchy opening for a Sunday Telegraph book review of How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom. Suddenly, he is hit by inspiration: "Simple fictions," Frank Kermode once wrote, "are the opium of the


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