Success to the Woodlouse initiative

13th June 1997 at 01:00
So can Chris Woodhead and Tim Brighouse actually work together? This was the question every journalist was asking when they were made joint vice-chairmen of the same committee, presumably to be known as the Brighead committee, or the Woodhouse committee. I knew something must be happening in the woodshed.

It all reminded me of a football coaching course I went on a few years ago. The old lag taking it was a well-known centre half, notorious for his ferocious tackling. When I made a feeble challenge on the player I was marking, he took me on one side. "Look son," he said, "you've got to let him know you're there. The first time he gets the ball, just drag your boot down his leg. When he's got six stud marks running down the back of his calf, he'll know you're there all right."

Could Tim Brighouse's role, therefore, be that of "tight marker"? Will he have to follow Woodhead around the pitch, studs upwards? If so, it will be a tricky assignment.

The more interesting question was whether or not opposites can work together. Looking back through history, for example, would Genghis Khan and St Francis of Assisi, those two contemporaries of the late 12th and early 13th centuries, who never actually met, have forged a harmonious partnership? "Genghis, my old mate, how are the animals getting on?" "Er, actually I've eaten them all. " Maybe not.

On the other hand, the cartoon characters Tom and Jerry sometimes make up. Unfortunately, their exaggerated politeness signals that peace will not last very long. It is usually the wicked Tom who reneges on the tryst, with Jerry soon back in the frying pan.

When asked by a BBC interviewer how different Tim Brighouse and Chris Woodhead were, I resorted to the cliche "like chalk and cheese". I wondered afterwards if I might have upset any cheeses listening. Was Wooders an over-ripe Gorgonzola or just a lump of hard cheddar? Or maybe a piece of Emmental, the cheese with the hole in the middle?

Much of the press coverage got it wrong. Teachers did not like the chief inspector because he had criticised them was a common theme. This is nonsense.

It is quite true that Woodhead likes to portray himself as the courageous mountaineer, fearlessly taking on Miss Periwinkle of Year 2, but the reasons for his unpopularity are more complex.

Criticism of the profession has little to do with it. After all, the very same heads who supported strong action against incompetent teachers at their annual conference went on to vote unanimously that they had no confidence in Wooders. Getting a room full of heads to agree on anything, other than the need to pick up litter, is a remarkable achievement. If nothing else he has united the profession.

Back in 1979 and 1980 there were two large-scale surveys by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of primary and secondary schools. The primary survey stated that only one class in 10 was getting a decent science programme, that there was little experimental work and that, while nature study was commonplace, physical science topics were rare.

Did the teaching profession riot at the revelation that there was too much of tadpoles and sticky buds and not enough about magnetism and electricity? Did anyone accuse Sheila Browne, the chief inspector of the day, of putting a spin on the evidence? Not at all.

The outcome of this devastating finding was that many primary science courses were put on for teachers and lots of schools appointed a science co-ordinator. The national curriculum then incorporated more physical science topics. As a result, the teaching of primary science is now infinitely better than it used to be. No Woodhead. No Office for Standards in Education. No rubbishing of primary teachers. Just a collective professional effort.

The reasons why Woodhead is not esteemed are threefold. First, he is known as someone who, having at one time been embarrassingly progressive, now portrays himself as an arch traditionalist. Anyone who works in a classroom is suspicious of such extreme conversions, as most practitioners make gradual judicious changes.

Second, he made the mistake of hobnobbing with right-wingers. Indeed, the Sunday Telegraph described him as a right-winger. Previous chief inspectors have kept their distance from political pressure groups. Woodhead not only produced a pamphlet for Sheila Lawlor's right-wing think tank Politeia, but wrote it in the style of such pamphleteers. His close contacts with right-wing newspapers are talked of freely by journalists. OFSTED pronouncements now lack credibility with the teaching profession.

Third, he portrays himself as the fearless champion of parents and children. This is seen as priggish by people who actually devote every day of their working lives to children and their families. It is as if he has sole lien on the public.

Nonetheless, despite these reservations, I do think it is important that ideological divisions should be put on one side and that people of all beliefs should work harmoniously together for the common good. I welcome the proposal that Tim Woodhead and Chris Brighouse should serve jointly on the Woodshed committee.

In the spirit of harmony and beneficence, therefore, I wish the new Woodlouse initiative every success. I am right behind it. So much so that I have been shopping. I have decided to give both central players a present, to ensure a cracking start and a smooth path of progress for the committee.

My carefully-chosen present to Chris Woodhead is a pair of radioactive boots, so he can be tracked down at the numerous lunches during which he gives the Press his unique version of events.

My gift for Tim Brighouse is a Geiger counter,and a pair of football boots, the former so he can actually find Woodhead, the latter so he can let him know he is there.

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