Where Woodhead sees negatives, I celebrate success

29th May 2009 at 01:00

I was saddened to read that Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, is suffering from the cruel and debilitating motor neurone disease. I wish him every success in his battle against it.

Mr Woodhead led a very confrontational and combative inspection regime. Thankfully, Ofsted and its Welsh offshoot, Estyn, have become organisations that seek to work much more in partnership with schools to raise standards. He has now published a book, A Desolation of Learning, setting out his view of how education continues to deteriorate in Britain.

Ironically, Mr Woodhead's "lifelong belief in selective education" appears to have derived from his own rather unhappy experiences as a schoolboy at Wallington Grammar School in London. He describes himself as a "troublemaker", caned twice for misbehaviour. He talks about how he and his peers tormented weak teachers and how he struggled with the academic rigour, leading him to "play the fool". But the good teachers at Wallington were very good - "a rare breed and getting rarer", according to Mr Woodhead. Crucially, he was given academic opportunities that he was gradually able to seize. His belief that all children are not born equally clever springs from these experiences.

What intrigues me most about his background is how similar it is to my own and yet how it has led us to very different opinions. I went to a very minor public school, paid for by the council because my parents worked abroad and, being missionaries, didn't have two ha'pennies to rub together. Although I enjoyed school and did well, it was not an inspiring place. There were many weak teachers whom we ran rings around. I remember one, the assistant chaplain, disappearing after slapping a female pupil who had wound him up. She slapped him back and stormed out of the classroom. We assumed he was sacked, but I can't actually be sure what happened. I think the pupil was given a detention. There were a couple of teachers whom I recall with fondness, but more because they showed an interest in me as an individual than because they inspired me. Mr Woodhead's grammar school sounds rather similar.

What I've never understood about grammar schools is that they cream off the top 20 to 30 per cent of higher-ability pupils, but then many of them don't even succeed in ensuring that all of these young people achieve at least five higher-grade GCSEs. There are only a tiny proportion of state comprehensives that don't enable at least 20 per cent of pupils to achieve this headline statistic. These schools are working in the most difficult circumstances in Britain. In my opinion, any grammar school failing to ensure that 100 per cent of its creamed-off pupils don't reach that target should be placed in special measures.

The four state comprehensives I have taught in have been far more interesting places to learn than the public school I attended.

A good education consists of four broad areas of learning: knowledge, understanding, skills and right attitudes. Mr Woodhead appears to value traditional knowledge above all else. Knowledge is undoubtedly important because it broadens our horizons and exercises our intelligence. Fundamentally, however, it is less important than right attitudes. There is a moving prayer to teachers from a survivor of the Holocaust about the Nazi regime being full of intelligent people, such as doctors who experimented on Jewish children. The prayer asks teachers never to forget that knowledge without morality is seriously dangerous. Mr Woodhead claims that his grammar school had its "understanding and values embedded in the everyday fabric of the school". This is true of any school. You can't hide your values because they pervade every action you take and every decision you make. But that doesn't make it unnecessary to teach them explicitly. We are much more likely to succeed in educating young people to become effective participants in their communities if we do this.

Mr Woodhead doesn't appear to mention skills at all. Yet he does talk about a presentation that he gave to academy principals and about his love of mountain climbing. Both of these activities require expert skills that will have been learnt and practised - probably not, in Mr Woodhead's case, when he was in school. Today, a young person is much more likely to have the opportunity to learn these skills.

Whichever way I look at it, I conclude that most schools, certainly state ones and probably private ones too, are in better shape than they have ever been. That doesn't mean any of them are perfect.

Mr Woodhead appears to see only the negative in state education - at least those parts of it that are not selective. Yet the evidence is that where selection remains, the overall achievements of young people are lower than they should be. The fact is that many of our state and private schools are world class. Even in the most ordinary comprehensives young people are achieving extraordinary things and these successes should be celebrated loudly. Far from being pessimistic about learning in Britain, I believe it will continue to go from strength to strength.

Alan Tootill Head of Penyrheol Comprehensive School, Swansea.

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