Second-hand eloquence

27th January 1995 at 00:00
Shorn of its academic trappings, Chris Woodhead's lecture this week is the intellectual equivalent to the polemical rant with which Kenneth Clarke launched the Three Wise Men inquiry on primary schools. Then, as now, the object was to make headlines and it is likely to prove just as counter-productive.

Woodhead was part of that inquiry's triumvirate, though there is little sign in his lecture that he absorbed its central message: that what schools need is evidence of what works, not dogma. In his OFSTED lecture, he lays into them for the latter - particularly into primary schools - but without any evidence to substantiate his own assertions.

With his annual report on the state of schools due out next week, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools might have been expected to have some pertinent proof to hand. His lecture, however, is an entirely fact-free zone. It is clearly designed to give a pre-emptive news spin to whatever the report may subsequently say.

He as good as admits to polemic: "When the pendulum of ideas has swung too far in one direction, we need an intemperate counterblast to correct the balance". The evidence adduced for this need is largely anecdotal; a few bruising encounters with heads and teachers when Woodhead ventured forth from SCAA or OFSTED headquarters. And he falls back on the old academic (and journalistic) trick; quoting someone else who memorably states as true those things one is not able to prove. The Michael Oakeshott essay he takes as his central text dates from more than 20 years ago. Second-hand eloquence rather than first-hand evidence is what we must now apparently expect from HMCI.

The tragedy of all this is that Chris Woodhead is not all wrong, though the important message in his lecture is now likely to be swamped not just by the extravagance of some of his claims, but the sense of professional betrayal many heads and teachers will feel. Rightly or wrongly, some will simply conclude that an HMCI so dismissive of their part in the revolutionary curriculum and administrative changes of the past seven years no longer warrants the high regard in which that office was once held. Others will point to the other professional challenges he conveniently ignores.

Chris Woodhead is right when he says the culture of education should, "be characterised by a sense of intellectual adventure; by an enthusiasm for critical reflection on ideas, values, assumptions and current practices". Some heads and teachers have clung too rigidly to easy beliefs and convivial orthodoxies, encouraged often enough by advisers and even HM inspectors. But it is not the challenge to these beliefs that is now driving heads from primary school in increasing numbers (page 12). It is bureaucratic overload.

Chris Woodhead criticises schools for too much emphasis on "socialisation" at the expense of knowledge, as if attitudes and enthusiasm for learning are unimportant. He criticises the belief that "education must be relevant to the immediate needs and interests of pupils" as if schools can simply step aside from a fast-food, fast-buck, fast-forward society and insist on deferment of pleasure.

"Our school curriculum must provide young people with the knowledge and skills they need to function effectively in adult working life," he says. " It must also give training in morality and taste,"as if this points uncontroversially to an obvious solution. So far it has taken the best brains that the National Curriculum Council and SCAA could buy and several unsatisfactory attempts even to begin to find answers.

The "legislative jigsaw" of 1988 and all that has put "the right framework in place for educational standards to be raised", if only teachers would suspend their emotional commitments to, in Woodhead's terms, outdated and irrational purposes and methods.

Again, there is a validity in this. OFSTED inspections and examination leagues tables are motivating some secondary schools to raise pupil expectations and examination grades though that is not necessarily the same thing as improving children's education. It is far from clear, too, where support will come from for ailing schools that are not self-starters. More interest than ever is being shown in the school improvement movement, though its tenets can be just as unthinkingly applied as the dogma Chris Woodhead deprecates.

The full impact of OFSTED and school league tables has yet to be felt in primary schools. Primary pupils too stand to benefit from greater determination to tackle underachievement. The concomitant danger, however, is that this will also mean more teaching to the test, and nobody surely imagines SATs are the full embodiment of primary education?

Chris Woodhead is right that we need heads and teachers who think for themselves, who are committed to the fullest education and development of their pupils and who reject the dogma and the easy solutions. What they need to achieve that is confidence; confidence in their own values and abilities and in their professional leadership. This lecture calls both into question.

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