Sayer of the unsayable

7th November 1997 at 00:00
Wilson shares his vision of school standards that are second to none

"He absolutely oozes charm" was one conference participant's judgment on Chris Woodhead, head of the Office for Standards in Education, the English schools' inspectorate. It was not intended to be a compliment.

The man teachers (or at least the teacher unions) love to hate was making a rare appearance in Scotland. The abrasive style was never far away. While Brian Wilson referred to incompetent teachers as those "who are unable to make a positive contribution", Mr Woodhead was more blunt.

In an interview with The TES Scotland before his talk, he said he had "no compunction in saying that a teacher should be sacked if they have been judged as found wanting and been unable to improve over two terms despite support".

Similarly on partnership, Mr Woodhead was less impressed than Mr Wilson who has made it a touchstone of policy. It was a concept that produced "a warm glow". "But there has to be clear agreement about what a partnership consists of, for instance about where the strategic direction given by an education authority ends and local management begins."

Accountability was much more Mr Woodhead's style. It must "shine sharply into every corner of the service". He is clearly fond of quoting a letter in The TES from a primary head who wrote that "there is no longer any hiding place". "Her view was that there should be. Mine is that there shouldn't."

There was also evidence of clear blue water between policies south of the border as the OFSTED chief voiced scepticism over value-added measures of school performance, to which the Scottish Office is strongly committed. While he professed support for relative as well as raw results, Mr Woodhead expressed both technical and professional objections which were almost fundamentalist. "I am concerned about the subliminal message which value-added communicates. Are we really saying that schools in disadvantaged areas can never compete with those in the leafy suburbs?" Nowhere where his dicta better illustrated than in a passage from a lecture earlier this year which, typically, he repeated in Edinburgh. The subject was teacher morale. "There is a crucial difference between self-confidence and self-delusion," Mr Woodhead said. "I am not prepared to preside over an inspection system which drowns failure and success, the able and the inefficient, in a flood of warm approbation."

But perhaps Mr Woodhead's style is just that, rather than a matter of substance. Perception is all. He did, after all, express sentiments with which even the unions would agree. "There is a danger for national government of pursuing too many initiatives simultaneously," he said. "It must recognise that if schools are being set the challenge of raising standards they must not be distracted from that task."

There were even views which the Scottish Office might endorse. The best agent for raising standards is the school itself, Mr Woodhead stressed. And education authorities must respect schools' autonomy.

The man from OFSTED does not want to be portrayed as an either-or man. He champions both raw exam results and value-added, he insists on judging and supporting schools, he espouses national prescription and local discretion, he wants whole-class teaching but accepts other approaches as well, he is schools' most unforgiving taskmaster but says they should be used to train teachers and apprentice the high-flying heads of the future.

Mr Woodhead came close to asking teachers to accept he might even be their saviour in disguise. He wants to create a "profession which is more open and mature, more capable of handling criticism, and more ready to face up to problems and weaknesses which have been festering for too long".

It is not a role likely to win him popularity in the staffroom. As he said himself, his job is "to say the unsayable".

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