Should he stay or should he go?

31st July 1998 at 01:00
The chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, has become education's most controversial figure. During his four-year tenure at the head of the Office for Standards in Education, Mr Woodhead has managed to incur the wrath of teachers, professors and chief education officers.

He is resented for his forthright views which his detractors claim are not based on evidence that can be gleaned from school inspection. David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, is expected shortly to announce whether Mr Woodhead's contract is to be renewed for another five years (though his contract does not expire until next summer).

Sheila Lawlor argues that Mr Woodhead's contract should be renewed so he can continue to subject schools to the scrutiny which has brought him enemies, while John Dunford argues that Mr Woodhead's personal agenda is at odds with the needs of education and a change should be made.

The office is a Crown appointment, which gives Mr Woodhead a degree of independence from ministers.

However plans for a major revision of school inspection is likely to follow this autumn's review of OFSTED's operation. Ministers might be tempted to change the terms of the chief inspector's contract to ensure closer working with the standards and effectiveness unit in the Department for Education and Employment, which now has the major role in the drive to raise standards.


Very shortly, Chris Woodhead's fixed term as chief inspector of schools will end and the Government will have to decide on the matter which has long tantalised the education world.

Will the Government use the occasion to see off the dreaded object of hatred and to replace him with "one of us"? Or will ministers stick to the principles on which serious inspection must rest, where inspection remains an outsider's job and the inspector a figure without cronies in the world on which he reports?

Whatever the area, the role of inspector is to inspect without fear or favour. Only when the inspector is detached from the inspected, will there be confidence in inspection; provided, of course, the rules which guide the work are sufficiently rigorous and transparent. Outside inspectorates are part of everyday life. There is always a potential conflict of interest between inspector and inspected, one must reveal what the other might want to hide. It is the heart of the three-way understanding between society, the inspector and the inspected body that this potential is accepted.

That understanding has broken down when it comes to schools. Too often the inspected - many teachers and heads, and the educational interest groups from unions to educationists and local education authorities - see Mr Woodhead's approach to inspection as a challenge to their own position, indeed to the dominance which they have long exercised over maintained education in this country.

Mr Woodhead's approach reflects the first attempt for decades to insist on a process of inspection which is detached from that which is inspected, which reports on what is found, which illuminates what is successful, and which is unsparing of weakness or failures. It owes much to the first task he set himself - clarifying and pruning what had been a welter of muddled criteria for inspection. For it is no secret that what Mr Woodhead found on arrival was not a framework for fair, open and transparent inspection, but the codified criteria which had inspired the erratic activities of HMI.

HMI was better loved by the inspected, than by the public on whose behalf it carried out inspections. Its inspections, just as its voluminous publications, were as much designed to promote preferred theories of education and to transform in theory and practice British education to reflect the fashions which had gripped it. Few gripes were heard, even when HMI singled out good academic schools for unfavourable reports.

Mr Woodhead must now cope, not just with the backlog of inspections, but with the reality which that inspectorate - together with its LEA counterparts - has left behind. Failing schools, low standards, poor discipline, a profession too often contemptuous of academic values and intellectual rigour, and an establishm ent which prefers life as it has been led, ''accountable to none'' (other than itself).

Mr Woodhead has some way to go. He needs greater scepticism about the tools Government employs to raise standards - whether the low standards imposed by the national curriculum or the impossibility of combining whole-class with mixed-ability teaching. He might further refine the framework for inspection, make more transparent what is being inspected. He might take the measures for efficiency into a language we understand in every other area of life: days lost by teaching staff through illness or for other reasons (and the extraordinary culture of tolerance surrounding this) should be investigated. Above all he might look to the other arm of inspection, the public examination system as the best complement to inspection and a far better bet than centralised or intrusive control (by central or local government).

Mr Woodhead should be given the chance to continue what he has started: not just as a symbol of continued battle with the interest groups and crony culture, but because the system of education needs to be restored to the world outside, and schools need to be reminded that their accountability is to that world and to parents.

Sheila Lawlor is director of the think tank, Politeia


Chris Woodhead has raised some important issues during his term as chief inspector and he has helped to focus the educational debate on pedagogy in a way which has not happened for over 30 years. He has never been afraid to raise difficult issues and to promote debate.

As head of OFSTED, he has presided over the sensible extension of the inspection cycle from four years to six and has created an inspection database which must be the envy of other countries.

The case against Chris Woodhead's reappointment greatly outweighs these positive considerations. There are three main points.

First, he appears to have a personal agenda, advocating a certain orthodoxy, often unsupported by the evidence of inspection. Secondly, he has become too close to politicians to provide the degree of independence which his role should guarantee. Thirdly, he is too closely identified with the present mode of OFSTED inspection, which needs to change to a model based on partnership between the schools and the external inspection agency. This model is almost certainly too far from Chris Woodhead's views about inspection to make it possible for him to introduce the required changes.

Examples of his personal agenda abound. In recent months, HMCI has commented on the review of the national curriculum, cutting across the careful review process being led by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. He has also put forward views about the role of local education authorities which are particularly inappropria te from the head of an agency which is just about to carry a major programme of local education authority inspections.

He proposes to play a part in the establishment of a school-centred initial teacher training scheme in ''successful'' primary schools - who will subject this scheme to the rigours of independent inspection?

On teaching methods, Chris Woodhead has himself said that OFSTED should ''not come to represent an orthodoxy as to what constitutes good practice''. His own views threaten to become the new orthodoxy, as inspectors report on whether literacy and numeracy are being taught in the correct way.

Chris Woodhead has not been as careful as previous inspectorate heads about crossing the line between comment and political policy-making. At a time when education policy is being increasing ly centralised, the country needs a chief inspector who is truly independent and is seen to be so.

After all, OFSTED is statutorily more independent from the government than HMI, which was based in the department itself, could ever have been. The chief inspector has a statutory duty to report on national issues and it has never been more important to have an independent view on these.

On the methodology of inspection, radical change is needed in order to move away from the present punitive model to that of partnership which gives due weight to Mr Blunkett's assertion that ''schools improve schools''.

The future model of inspection is surely one in which school self-evaluation plays a central role, supported by external inspection of the process. Chris Woodhead's proposal for drop-in visits by inspectors without notice is more appropriate for a drugs seizure operation than for the inspection of a professionally-delivered service.

In 1997, the head of HMI in Scotland, Nisbet Gallagher was replaced by his deputy, Douglas Ogler. In Wales, Roy James was replaced by Susan Lewis.All four had long and successful careers in HMI and hold the respect of both the teaching profession and the central authority.

All are strongly independent, yet none has attracted the controversy and mistrust which have been prominent in Chris Woodhead's leadership.

If the Government is serious about developing a partnership with the teaching profession to put its policies into action, then that partnership must extend into the field of quality assurance. Chris Woodhead's vision is one of quality control, with which industry dispensed long ago and from which the education service rapidly needs to move forward. Enough is enough.

John Dunford is incoming general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association.

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