Poor show, Woodhead

18th September 1998 at 01:00
Earlier this year the chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, attacked the view that poor educational performance is inevitable in deprived areas. He said:

"The problem is not that poor children are too stupid but rather that poor teaching coupled with a lack of parental support means they do not make the progress they should." He asked his readers: "Can teachers make a difference? Or are the social odds too high? Where do you stand?" (The TES,June 5, 1998) Mr Woodhead, I stand alongside eight-year-old Joanne, whose massive and growing achievements transcend the statistical limitations of you and others and who therefore will remain anchored in the underachieving corner of your scattergraphs - but whose new-found enthusiasm for life is enviable.

And I stand alongside Joanne's teachers, who risk denigration because of the inadequacy of your and others' measures.

I stand alongside 11-year-old Lindsay, who has begun to explore in her writing the recent death of her father. And I stand alongside her teacher who - disregarding external pressures to "cover the ground" - has given her time and understanding, and whom I found red-eyed in her response to Lindsay's fumblings.

I stand alongside those who do more than pay lip-service to the aspiration of the education of whole people for a challenging present and an uncertain future. Mr Woodhead, try re-reading paragraph 3.11 of Sir Ron Dearing's final report on the national curriculum and its assessment (1993) which I heard you tell a meeting you wrote.

I stand alongside those who argue for a redefinition of the "basics" to include so much more than the apparently measurable aspects of literacy and numeracy. I stand alongside those who have rejoiced in Norway's core curriculum booklet which confirms the existence of another, and better, way. It shames our national curriculum and its documentation.

I stand alongside those who deplore your apparent lack of understandings,which finds expression in various parodies of reality. If you doubt me, I invite you to re-read, for example, what you wrote in the Observer in June 1997 about "tedium and triviality" being the "practical consequences" of certain beliefs to which you are opposed. They are not inevitably so - only out of ignorance or deceit could anyone pretend otherwise.

I stand alongside those who share my alarm in your shift from the entirely worthy: "Delegates welcomed, therefore, the suggestion that our society needs to clarify what it is that it really wants from our schools",to the entirely reassuring: "It is for you as headteachers to decide how your children should be taught" (both from Teaching Quality, the Primary Debate, a report on OFSTED conferences 1995), to the entirely sinister: "The real challenge is whether and how the state can redefine the educational enterprise so that it influences how teachers teach" (annual lecture, 1998).

I stand alongside those who believe schools should be properly accountable, and who know there is a better way than OFSTED's whistle-stop tour and its arrogant certainties. I stand alongside those who were appalled when you confessed boasted that when you sought the position of chief inspector in 1994 that you had a clear agenda. "I didn't tell anyone what it was because if I had they wouldn't have appointed me" (Daily Telegraph, March 23, 1996).

Mr Woodhead, you called your annual lecture this year "Blood on the Tracks: Lessons from the History of Education Reform". I stand alongside all those whose blood has been spilled, all those who see blood on your hands, all those who know it is time you moved on.

Michael Foot was a primary head for almost 19 years. He took early retirement three years ago, "unhappy with many developments in education"

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