Tame that tiger talk

18th September 1998 at 01:00
Chris Woodhead arouses passions like no one else in education. His instinct to go for the jugular is reminiscent of Mrs Thatcher in her heyday. Like her, he sees himself as an iconoclast, a lone warrior pitted against a self-serving establishment. His supporters are slavish in their devotion; his critics - whom he greatly enjoys baiting - are frequently reduced to impotent rage.

This week, all the talk has been of the chief inspector's renewed contract and 40 per cent pay rise as leaked to the Sunday papers - yet as The TES went to press this news remained pointedly unconfirmed by David Blunkett.

For the politicians, managing Chris Woodhead must be like having a tiger by the tail - a tiger with its own agenda, which might or might not coincide with theirs. Reportedly, much of the negotiation surrounding his new contract has hinged on efforts to embed his post in a clearer structure of accountability. Currently, he is virtually a free agent - and makes full use of his freedom. How far ministers will succeed in penning him in has yet to be revealed.

Many teachers will interpret his reappointment as a sign that this Government is not on their side. But the fact is that - barring a colossal gaffe - that Chris Woodhead was always going to be reappointed. Most people outside education - and some inside - feel that he is doing a good job, and that the school system is safe in his hands. Educators may hate him, but David Blunkett probably feels he can live with that, particularly if it deflects opprobrium from ministers.

And the education landscape is shifting. Steven "Name and shame" Byers has gone to the Treasury. OFSTED inspections are less frequent, and in any case hold fewer terrors now. Woodhead has backed primary teachers in calling for their curriculum burden to be lightened. So, when will official confirmation be forthcoming? It's a spin doctor's nightmare. The beginning of term was reserved for Being Nice to Teachers. This week's TUC conference, full of anger about public-sector pay, would not be the best moment to announce a stonking rise for the chief inspector. As the Government is attempting to woo teachers, and reduce the profession's high wastage rate, this is probably an announcement David Blunkett would rather not have made right now.

It might have served as a way of upstaging the Tory party conference next month. But it increasingly looks as though Mr Woodhead won't wait that long.

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