One happy chief inspector

16th January 1998 at 00:00
Chris Woodhead looks like the cat who got the cream. Say three words out loud - primary, curriculum, review - and an involuntary grin creeps right across his features. But then the chief inspector of schools has every right to be pleased. This week's primary curriculum review reflected exactly the back-to-basics approach to primary education he has long championed.

Indeed, read much of this week's media coverage and one would be forgiven for thinking that the widely welcomed curriculum changes were down to him, apparently scoring him a major victory over the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's Dr Nicholas Tate.

"I'm not the one saying that my views have led directly to a ministerial decision," he laughs in mock horror. "But I've made no secret of the fact that the primary curriculum needed to be revised. Clearly, the Secretary of State shared my judgment. So let's just say I am very, very pleased."

And the thing that pleases him most of all? Wryly admitting that some of his past decisions have met with "less than universal approval" by teachers, this week, for once, he is "absolutely delighted to be on the side of the angels".

Those same angels who spoke so "powerfully and eloquently about the pressure they were under, until the Government could no longer ignore their collective voice". And Chris's angels will, he believes, back the changes "110 per cent".

Brushing off Dr Tate's well-documented fears that he would be "extremely disturbed" by anything other than a broad and balanced curriculum, Mr Woodhead says: "This is not in any sense a narrow Victorian, totalitarian approach. Any worries to the contrary are ill-founded. And, at present, I fail to see how anyone can be confident that any richer or broader curriculum objectives are getting across. They simply aren't and that's because too many children are not mastering the basic skills."

Critics of the changes have expressed concern that arts, drama and music will be jeopardised. Ex-English teacher Woodhead disagrees: "Nobody is denying primary school children need an outlet for creativity and imagination, and I have a great deal of faith in primary heads' ability to provide that. This is not a threat to the arts - very much the reverse. Isn't it an obvious statement that until children have learnt to read they are not going to have access to great literature? This decision will allow greater access for all children to the arts and literature, not just a fortunate few."

Warming to his theme he continues: "Since taking up this job the under-achievement of children in our inner cities has worried me more than anything else. I wouldn't have advised these changes if I didn't think it was in the long-term benefits of such children."

Other critics have pointed towards other European countries, asking why it is that elementary primary education there manages to be both broad in outlook and high in standard. Mr Woodhead says: "Let me add I don't also deny cultural differences, but you can't do anything about those. What you can do something about is the teaching methods you employ. I think these changes will actually result in the kind of teaching we see abroad - a practical, top-down and prescriptive approach. I can see no reason why dramatic progress cannot and should not be made in the immediate future. There's everything to work and play for."

And in case any heads out there were worrying about a blip in history or weakness in geography before that impending inspection - don't. Mr Woodhead insists: "We in OFSTED will make absolutely sure that inspectors understand that the key focus of attention over the next two years has got to be raising standards in literacy and numeracy. No school will be criticised for focusing its attention on that."

Sitting back, arms crossed behind his head, it's impossible to ignore the twinkle in Woodhead's eyes as he says: "This is a good news story and we all agree. Isn't that wonderful?"

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