Titans' clash forces debate into corners

6th February 1998 at 00:00
This is the big one. It's the last showdown. It's Tyson v Holyfield. It's Godzilla v King Kong. It's the World Cup final. It's High Noon. It'sI Sorry about that. I get carried away with the sporting hype on television, as each football game is personalised: "Alex Ferguson's megastars take on Big Ron's rejuvenated Owls". Utter rubbish, I know, but I fall for it, until the brain-corroding tedium of the actual game.

So I have been looking at the Chris Woodhead (OFSTED Rovers) versus Tim Brighouse (Birmingham United) press accounts of the Office for Standards in Education report on Birmingham education authority.

I was very interested in this inspection, as I chaired the Birmingham education commission in 1993. We delivered a damning report on the local authority, and several of our recommendations on such matters as baseline-testing and target-setting later became national policy.

Fortunately for Birmingham, Tim Brighouse was then appointed chief education officer. He visited hundreds of schools, infusing massive energy into improving classroom practice and the life chances of the city's children.

In 1998, Birmingham has received a brilliant OFSTED report, describing it as "a success story", and saying that it is performing better than any local education authority inspected. The report offers perfectly fair criticisms and many helpful pointers about such matters as improving school attendance.

So why the fuss? The answer lies in the sentences that seem to have appeared and disappeared while the report was passing through the central OFSTED sausage machine.

I wonder what the OFSTED drafting process would have done to Shakespeare. "The quality of mercy is not strain'd, it is generally sound", or "This was the noblest Roman of them all, but he didn't use approved OFSTED teaching methods".

There are isolated remarks in the draft, such as: "The LEA might, for example, valuably ask itself how the use it makes of OFSTED inspection data, important as that is, can be squared with the CEO's public views about the need to reform OFSTED". Ooh, naughty Tim, slapped hands. But what on earth did this have to do with the rest of the report and the quality of Birmingham schools and the authority?

These detached asides may have been removed from the final version but they betray the agenda. Brighouse was criticised for his "rhetoric". In classical times, rhetoric meant the art of skilful speaking or writing, and wealthy Athenians paid Protagoras 10,000 drachmas to teach it to their sons. In the draft report, rhetoric is used pejoratively, mentioned four times in the same paragraph, alongside "soundbite", used twice.

A newspaper article last summer quoted OFSTED "sources" as saying that the inspection of Birmingham would show there was a lot of hype and that was before a single inspector had set foot in the city.

So what has Brighouse said and done that led to this clash of ideologies? The report says that Birmingham celebrates success, but should be more public about failure, though it acknowledges the authority has taken firm action on failure. Since Chris Woodhead's public rubbishing of teachers has only offended them, give me Brighouse's approach every time.

The second ideological spat is over teaching methods. Brighouse encourages teachers to choose strategies in the light of evidence and context. OFSTED believes teachers should be directed more on how to teach.

OFSTED, you see, has discovered interactive whole-class teaching, that is standing before the class asking questions. All right, stop laughing. I know people have been doing that for years, but don't spoil the excitement of discovery. As I tell myself each time seven-year-olds get excited about magnets, "It may be the 100th time for you, but it's the first time for them".

I have studied classrooms for more than 25 years, noting down events, studying individual pupils, interviewing teachers and students, testing achievement, reading research literature. Nowhere can I find the philosopher's stone, the single teaching method that turns all to gold.

They found it in the 19th century. Training institutions were called "normal schools". There was a single norm which every teacher was filed to fit. That was why in his novel Hard Times, Dickens said of Mr M'Choakumchild that he and 140 other schoolmasters "had been lately turned at the same time in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs".

Poor old Confucius. He wrote in his Analects, "IfI I have dealt thoroughly with one corner and the pupils cannot then find the other three for themselves, then I do not explain any more".

Little did he realise that OFSTED would one day rediscover the 19th century and consign him and thousands of other thinkers and practitioners to the dustbin of history.

Let there be no ambiguity. If teachers in future are told how to teach by OFSTED, and presumably inspected accordingly, then it is the death of teaching as a profession. It will still be a job, but not one for those with imagination or spirit. Throw all your information technology on the skip for a start. Welcome back Mr M'Choakumchild.

If you doubt that this will happen, consider the success of the OFSTED rhetoric, and the determination with which it is being hyped among the powerful. A recent Times leader stated that: "Some LEAs still espouse eclectic teaching methods that have been shown to be far less effective than those recommended by OFSTED, the inspectorate". Goodbye choice.

Despite Birmingham's excellent report, this clash of ideologies, sadly, polarises an argument that should be flexible. In the end, Brighouse v Woodhead becomes the wider stage: spirited, imaginative Miss Scattergood versus Gradgrind; Beethoven's Ode to Joy versus Handel's "Dead March from Saul"; a profession versus "just a job". In football terms, Brazil v Poland.

Imagine the TV commentary: "Brighouse picks up the ball with silky skill. What a marvellous dummy as he ghosts samba-style round two OFSTED defenders. Only Woodhead, the OFSTED centre-back, to beat nowIOh I sayI there's a nasty tussle in the goal mouth. That has to be a red card." But which one will the ref send off? If it's Brighouse, then it's RIP teaching as a profession: died 1998.

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