CHIEF inspector Chris Woodhead has given his secret backing to Geoffrey Owen, the sacked inspector who was accused of bullying and intimidating teachers.
Mr Owen - famed for his tough judgments - was de-registered in November after the last in a string of complaints. One headteacher had a nervous breakdown, other staff were said to be traumatised.
But in a private, handwritten letter to Mr Owen, Mr Woodhead praises the inspector he sacked and offers to "oil the wheels" in Mr Owen's search for future jobs.
The letter, revealed in an exclusive TES interview (Friday magazine, page 4) shows Mr Woodhead's support for a man reviled by many teachers.
The letter has angered teaching unions, who lobbied the Office for Standards in Education for four years to bring him down.
This week calls were renewed for an independent complaints system to monitor OFSTED. It has appointed Elaine Rassaby as an adjudicator last July, but she does not have the power to xoverturn or re-order school inspections.
Independence has been a key issue in the Commons education select committee's on-going inquiry into OFSTED.
John Dunford, Secondary Heads Association general secretary, called the letter "quite amazing". He added: "It is an example of the sort of patronage the chief inspector should not be using. We don't want to see this man inspecting or advising schools ever again."
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, added: "The letter does reinforce the need for a truly independent complaints machinery, so that if an inspector is removed because of incompetence or for any other reason, then that is the end of the story."
In the letter to Mr Owen Mr Woodhead says: "I found the decision to de-register you the hardest I have had to take as HMCI.
"There may be nothing I can do to help with the future, but if there ever is, I will do it. Don't hesitate to contact me if you think I might be able to oil the wheels."
Mr Owen claims the unions and local education authorities were out to get him after he failed the second school he inspected. He failed 10 of 65 primary schools he inspected - a 15 per cent failure rate compared to a national average of just 2 per cent.
Mr Owen - who received an average of pound;4,000 per inspection - says he is now glad to have put the affair behind him. He has launched a new career at the age of 52 as a management consultant.
Chris Woodhead has also backed Mr Owen in a formal letter to John Harries, a headteacher who lodged a complaint about the inspector in 1995.
Mr Harries, formerly head of Hillbrook primary, south London, retired on ill-health grounds after suffering a nervous breakdown following the Owen inspection.
Mr Harries said: "Mr Woodhead has been completely partisan in defending a man already discredited by his own staff.
"His treatment of the people who are effectively victims of Mr Owen is simply a disgrace. It makes me immensely angry that he chose to ignore the earlier complaints and shocked that he has made these remarks."
OFSTED made no comment.
Insider's view of Hillbrook, Platform, 21