Soft sell

7th February 1997 at 00:00
The forlorn-looking carpet salesman in Holborn, central London, was short of customers on Tuesday. His prices were dirt cheap, but the shoppers were suspicious. What sort of Persian rugs can you buy for Pounds 29.99? A few doors away, in the headquarters of the Office for Standards in Education, Chris Woodhead was also facing some sceptical customers at the launch of the chief inspector's annual report. How did he know that 3,000 heads were weak managers? Had the number of incompetent teachers really fallen from 15,000 to 13, 000?

Precious little of that scepticism was evident in the subsequent coverage of his report, however. A few newspapers such as The Times produced balanced, if rather truncated, accounts of the complex, but largely positive, story that Mr Woodhead had to tell. One in seven primary heads and one in ten secondary heads might be offering weak leadership, but there had been an overall increase in standards last year. But somewhere between the OFSTED press conference and the newsrooms, the message that inspectors had seen 5,000 fewer unsatisfactory or poor lessons last year got lost. "Half the nation's teaching is poor" was the banner headline that the Evening Standard ran across two pages.

In part, such travesties occur because of the manic speed at which documents such as the chief inspector's report have to be digested by the media. Caveats fly out the window when there are deadlines to meet. But, of course, the media reports were also distorted by journalists' hunger for an alarming story, particularly one that fed their newspapers' prejudices. One has to be realistic, however. Newspapers that treat stories in the way that the OFSTED press release began - "Signs of improvement in some aspects of schools' performance are welcomed today by Chris Woodhead" - have the life expectancy of a mayfly.

Being an intelligent man who is well used to pulling media strings, Mr Woodhead understands this. He must have anticipated that the failing heads story and the continuing row over OFSTED's attempt to identify and quantify teacher incompetence would appeal to journalists far more than a 2 per cent decrease in the number of unsatisfactory lessons. But Mr Woodhead made little mention of failing heads at the press conference. He may be generally perceived as the man who has created the culture of blame that pervades the education service. But naturally he preferred to portray himself as a seeker-after-truth who wanted to paint an honest picture of the school system, even if it upset certain interest groups. He rejected the often-repeated suggestion that he was guilty of "statistical sleight of hand" with a disarming admission that will often be used against him in future: "I have difficulty in adding up". And it was almost possible to feel sorry for him when he had to admit that inspectors had only pinpointed 88 incompetent teachers during the 2,862 school inspections carried out between April and December last year.

Mr Woodhead has since been criticised for suggesting that inspectors are too loath to single out failing teachers. But he was telling the truth. Some registered inspectors admit privately that they strongly advise their team members not to fail any teacher. Who needs the extra bureaucracy that such a judgment entails? Who wants the tears and drama and the possible risk of having to defend their judgment in court?

The chief inspector was also right to draw attention to such issues as inadequate teaching in special schools, the shortcomings of many information technology lessons, and the generally high standard of behaviour in schools. But his report contains some serious defects which undermine his claim to be presenting a "warts and all" account of the service.

As before, he has used this report to emphasise the importance of two of his personal hobby-horses: phonic work and whole-class teaching. And while he acknowledges that schoolbook shortages are hindering both classwork and homework, as always he is careful not to point the finger at underfunding. Most significantly, his 50-page report makes not a single mention of rising class sizes although most teachers see this as by far the biggest obstacle to improvement.

It is that kind of omission that causes people to question Mr Woodhead's objectivity, even though Mr Blair may have guaranteed his immediate future.

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