Woodhead detaches himself from body politic

31st May 1996 at 01:00
Part of the charm of the chief inspector of schools is his reticence about his relationship with the prime minster. Not one to boast of friends in high places, Chris Woodhead, when tackled by Labour MPs about his visit to Number 10, told them that he and John Major had only met once on a one-a-one basis.

Whether they had met more frequently in the company of others or occasionally chatted on the phone was not revealed.

In fact, the accusation that he had behaved in any party-political way was without foundation, he told MPs during his session last week in front of the education and employment select committee.

As evidence of his "even-handedness" with parties, he cited David Blunkett. The Opposition spokesman on education was no less keen than himself on the need to sack poor teachers, he said.

There were 15,000 teachers who should be taken out of the system he confidently told MPs. He could be precise about the number because the Office for Standards in Education had made a calculation based on 100,000 lessons observed in secondary schools and another 100,000 lessons in primaries.

While it was perfectly possible to get rid of these staff there appeared to be a distinct lack of resolution to do so, he said.

Just who lacked the will Mr Woodhead did not say. Presumably he had in mind school governors or local authorities.

Conservative MPs were keen to have figures on the numbers of teachers who had already been sacked. At first Mr Woodhead promised these could be provided but responding to a nudge from Mike Tomlinson, the head of inspections, he said they could be obtained from the Department for Education and Employment.

Not that Mr Woodhead thought the figures would amount to a hill of beans. There are hardly any examples of teachers being sacked, he assured MPs.

Labour MP Margaret Hodge suggested there might be other ways of dealing with inadequate staff. It was possible, she said, to manage people out of the profession. Mr Woodhead said that the potential cost of such a strategy would worry him.

The topic of poor teachers finally wore down Labour MP Gerry Steinberg who decided to dispense with normal niceties. The chief inspector, he said, had manipulated the ground rules in drafting his annual report. As a result, no one took him seriously; he had become a politically controversial figure.

Mr Woodhead politely insisted that Mr Steinberg has got it all wrong. The claims of manipulation had come from a former inspector and were disputed by the man's colleagues - other senior HMIs.

Pressed as to why Colin Richards said OFSTED ignored him, Mr Woodhead declared that Mr Richards must be lying.

Nor was Mr Woodhead going to stand any nonsense about the rewording of the OFSTED survey of teaching and reading in three inner London boroughs.

All that had happened to the report is that it had been edited to render it more economical in style, not in truth, he said.

The central point to understand, he suggested, was that without high quality teaching children such as those in the survey, would end up illiterate truants destined for the scrap heap. Thus Mr Woodhead managed to take the high ground and make the next day's newspaper headlines. What's all this talk of politics he appeared to infer, when there are teachers to be sacked and children need to be taught to read.

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