Permission to breathe, Sir?

13th November 1998 at 00:00
IT WAS a TES news headline to take the breath away: "Woodhead to give literacy exemption". A head- teacher at a conference addressed by the chief inspector had complained about having to do the literacy strategy, even though his school was achieving well above the national targets.

Woodhead's reply was: "If you send me the details of your results, and if they are good enough, I will write you a letter saying you can implement whatever parts of the literacy strategy you think might be useful." Come again? Will exemption from the literacy strategy come from Chris Woodhead in future?

Does this mean that he is now, as it were, the alimentary canal of the education system and everything must go through him? It doesn't half set the imagination racing. "Dear Chris, I have reached the bottom of the page, may I turn over?" But the situation is even more hilarious. Think carefully. The literacy strategy is not a statutory requirement, therefore schools are not actually compelled to do it by law. So what Woodhead is actually offering is to give people permission not to do something which they do not have to do anyway. Brilliant. Another Gilbert and Sullivan classic.

Think of all the things you don't actually have to do, from which eager beaver Chris might now deign to grant you exemption. "Dear Chris, I am fed up with eating banana yoghurt for breakfast every day. Any chance of a written let-off?" "Dear Wooders, I have done my back in, so can you excuse me from the London marathon?" All this has made me very worried about the pressure on the Office for Standards in Education if more and more schools now write in asking written permission not to do one thing or another. I am willing, therefore, to give my services free to help them out in their hour of crisis.

If I am to do the job properly, however, I shall have to occupy the Chief Inspector's office, since I shall need space for my desk, word processor and filing cabinets. That means, sadly, that the throne and four mirrors will have to go on the skip.

OFSTED will obviously require a whole new section to deal with the numerous pleading letters that could flood in, so I shall be setting up the Ted Wragg Exemption Requests Programme. We at TWERP will be one of the busiest departments in the new style OFSTED, so we shall try to minimise the bureaucracy.

If you want exemption from the literacy strategy, send us an e-mail. Our e-mail address is By the miracle of modern electronic communications we shall then e-mail you back, in the twinkling of an eye, a Woodhead Official Order of Freedom (WOOF).

If the numeracy strategy is also a bother for you, then the process is equally simple. Send us another e-mail and we will ship you by return a second WOOF. These two WOOFS offer complete protection. Whenever a team of inspectors calls in future, you just have to say "WOOF WOOF" and they will go away.

For multiple requests you must fill in the yellow "bulk dispensation" form which I have devised. The Woodhead All-purpose Let-off Licence (Yellow), known as WALLY for short, can cover up to 10 exemptions: excuse you having to play bridge at lunchtime, compete in the three-legged race on Sports Day, that sort of thing. Just ask us to send you a WALLY and we'll gladly oblige.

I could get to like sitting at the heart of power in a large bureaucracy. After years as an academic, pushing back the frontiers of knowledge, it is comforting to know that, if my broom ever wore out, I could spend each day giving people permission they don't even need. It seems like the supreme existentialist act - surreal, pointless, but with a beautiful symmetry.

When Chris Woodhead was given his new contract, he countered suggestions that his reappointment might go down badly with the teaching profession by telling Valerie Grove in an interview that he had received "20 letters from heads last week and at least a dozen phone calls saying how pleased they were".

This column is dedicated to the 23,968 heads who didn't write in.

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