Uncompromising polemicist meets evangelical pioneer

6th June 1997 at 01:00
About the only thing that the chief inspector has in common with Professor Brighouse is experience on local authorities. After working as an English schoolteacher and university tutor between 1969 and 1982, he served as adviser for Shropshire LEA and was education second-in-command in both Devon and Cornwall.

His former colleagues from those days tend to offer dramatically varying opinions of his performance; Mr Woodhead has always provoked strong feelings. Some of his past writings are surprisingly sympathetic to child-centred education and have been resurrected by enemies painting him as poacher turned gamekeeper. He served on the National Curriculum Council before becoming chief inspector in 1994.

He first achieved national prominence as one of the "three wise men", (the other two were Robin Alexander and Jim Rose) whose seminal 1992 report on the parlous state of primary education was highly influential and acclaimed for its elegant style.

As head of the Office for Standards in Education he brought a new polemical and uncompromising tone to the office of chief inspector right from the start, and rapidly carved out a very public niche as the scourge of woolly 1960s-syle thinking and the educational Establishment in general. Just as rapidly, he began to attract passionate supporters who saw him as a courageous lone voice in the intellectually bankrupt world of schools (John Major and other prominent Tories, plus most of the national press) and equally passionate enemies (most teachers, many senior academics, and several HMI within OFSTED).

On the BBC's Panorama he announced that there were 15,000 bad teachers who should be sacked. This statement, made in 1995, is constantly quoted today, although the means by which he arrived at this figure have been hotly disputed. His decision to publish an essay for the right-wing think tank, Politeia, brought acccusations that he was compromising the independence of his office. Many of the reports to emerge from OFSTED have been controversial and resulted in increased powers for OFSTED.

One, concluding that class size was not important, published amid national unrest among parents and teachers about the issue, provoked criticism of OFSTED's research methods. The chief inspector was accused of rewriting the report on standards of reading in three inner-city boroughs in order to underscore the negative aspects. Mr Woodhead has always remained unruffled by criticism - if not actually relishing it - arguing that anybody who challenges vested interests will inevitably provoke resentment.

Even Mr Woodhead's supporters tend to agree that he is not one of nature's team players. In an interview with The TES earlier this year, he called Professor Brighouse "hysterical" and warned the Labour party against the Brighouse vision of education.

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