TES editor Caroline St John-Brooks meets the most controversial man in education
Christopher Anthony Woodhead, Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools, thrives on risk-taking. He is not a rock climber for nothing. Having worked in every part of the education system since he began teaching in 1969 - schools, teacher training, the advisory service, local education authorities, and two quangos (the National Curriculum Council and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority) he has risen to become one of the most powerful - and controversial - men in education.
His Office for Standards in Education has been described as operating a "reign of terror". He has been accused of doctoring reports and distorting evidence - an accusation he publicly denied this week (see story, page 9). He is seen as a conspiratorial figure who gets his way by manoeuvring behind the scenes. Most recently, he has been attacked for "dumbing down" the primary curriculum by encouraging the Government to prune it, emphasising literacy and numeracy at the expense of the arts and humanities.
Today, Woodhead has just replied to a cross letter from the conductor Sir Simon Rattle on this very subject. He does not agree that he represents a utilitarian, Gradgrind tendency. And the jibe that he was an ultra-progressive English teacher back in the old days and has changed his views to suit his political masters, he rejects as a "libel". "Anyone whose views haven't developed since that period is stuck in the mud - atrophied."
Sitting in his airy central London office, the chief inspector ruminates: "I don't accept that I've shifted from the idealism of the 1960s to a more - as you put it - hard-nosed philosophy. I do not see teachers as mere technicians, or teaching as some kind of painting-by-numbers activity. I think my view is deeply idealistic - the notion of inspiring in children a love of literature, history or science. But I suppose I do now believe in personal liberation rather than social revolution."
Without sound basic skills, he believes, personal liberation - especially for working-class children - will not happen. "We have got a crisis in literacy and numeracy. If we don't get that right, everything is based on sand - including lifetime learning." He describes the Government's literacy and numeracy strategies as being akin to a "wartime plan", aimed at the targets for 2002. "By then, it should have worked, and will have made a radical differences to the life-chances of every child in the country."
Now that nearly every school has been inspected, OFSTED's uncomfortable spotlight is shifting to local education authorities. Woodhead insists that inspectors are not adopting prior assumptions as to what LEAs ought to be doing. The key questions, he says, are: What does the authority want to do? How effective is it at doing it? What do the schools think of it and what is the relationship between cause and effect when it comes to school improvement? This last, he admits, is a tricky area, involving contestable judgments on what exactly the authority's contribution is to the quality of its schools.
The recent inspection of Birmingham education authority - whose charismatic chief education officer Tim Brighouse is described by Chris Woodhead as a "romantic" - is a case in point. Woodhead laments the fact that "substantive issues get lost when things are personalised and trivialised".
The issues he felt got lost in the furore are questions like: "Given that this local education authority has had an impact - why? What has really influenced things?" Birmingham's recent progress, he says, has mainly been achieved through generous funding, an improvement in the services offered to schools, and higher morale among teachers ("largely due to Tim"). But he reminds me that the authority is still well down the LEA league tables Such inspections are very high-stakes for local authorities, partly since Woodhead is widely believed to be keen to see them go. "Fears that I want LEAs to be abolished are completely misplaced," he now says firmly. He does believe, though, that we may see a whole variety of approaches evolve. Education action zones, in particular, could generate new ways of improving schools in deprived communities.
Chris Woodhead's latest annual report for OFSTED has an optimistic tone. Standards are rising, and teachers are becoming less defensive and complacent, and more professional. Asked to elaborate, he says that teacher professionalism in this country has traditionally been identified with controlling the school curriculum.
Instead, he thinks, the focus should be on classroom practice - pedagogy. A key role for OFSTED is to identify, from inspection reports, what works best. "We are not trying to define the way teachers should teach; it is not a toolkit approach."Armed with this knowledge, teachers can make practical judgments on how to teach. "We need to move to a more outcome-based model of professionalism - to devolve as much as possible, and then hold people accountable."
He would like to see teachers paid more - if it were possible "politically and economically" - and favours an elite cadre of top professionals supported by more classroom assistants.
Newspaper articles written in support of Chris Woodhead and his policies sometimes make him sound like a lone voice in the wilderness, ignored by the powerful forces of reaction. Woodhead himself says that he does not buy this interpretation. "I have never felt like that. Anyway, there is increasing consensus within the world of education that what I am saying is worth thinking about."
Yet he makes no secret of the fact that he enjoys a scrap - and seems unable to resist winding up members of the education establishment. He specialises in a provocative games-playing style which raises the political temperature and which realpolitik has forced him to modify - in public, at any rate - since Labour came to power.
Perhaps, in spite of his expressed dislike of "mythologising," he himself is in thrall to some pretty potent myths: Jack the Giantkiller? David and Goliath? What, I ask, if the ranks of opposition suddenly crumbled and he didn't have to battle any more? "I would give up the job".