Woodhead was my sick joke

17th November 2000 at 00:00
"ALAS, poor Woodhead! - I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy."

Given the lucrative jobs he will be taking up, the word "poor" seems inappropriate. But I want to confess something.

I invented Chris Woodhead. There, I've said it. I apologise if I upset anyone in the process. We satirists can sometimes get desperate, so one day I made him up.

Reprehensible, I admit, but I was young and silly. He was, so to speak, my Piltdown Man.

The idea was meant to be so transparent everyone would recognise it was a spoof. The ultra-progressive teacher, teacher trainer and LEA administrator turns into a traditionalist, scourging teachers, teacher trainers and LEA administrators.

Easily bored, he went on, in my storyline, to write for a Conservative newspaper, become a consultant to a Conservative PR firm and then a Conservative peer, Screaming Lord Woodhead. Incredible, I thought, no one will fall for it.

Even the name was a clue. Unsure whether to call him Chris Smartguy or Sid Turniphead, I settled on a compromise. I thought I had overdone things sufficiently for everyone to rumble, but somehow he just grew in my fevered imagination until people assumed he was real.

The hardest moment came when I had to take part in a debate with him at London University's Institute of Education. Talking sense one minute and bollocks the next, running up and down the stage so fast that no one noticed there was only one of us, was absolutely knackering, but I must have fooled those present, since I beat myself by 900 votes to 25.

And posing for all those photo opportunities, dripping with gravitas, sometimes wearing climbing gear and severe spectacles while dangling from a cliff, was absolute murder, I can tell you.

I still find it difficult to separate fantasy from reality.

Since he took on a life of his own the fantasies have proliferated in the right-wing press. To make up for what I have wrought I want to disarm some of them.

Myth number one is that he raised achievement. In truth standards rose despite Woodhead, not because of him.

Scores in GCSE and A-level improved for years before he ever appeared. Philip Hunter, chief education officer of Staffordshire, showed that standards rose faster in schools that had not had an OFSTED inspection than in those that had. The retro-rocket of inspection held progress back.

Myth number two is that he had to act tough. Yet it was a survey by old-style HMI, revealing that only one primary class in 10 was getting a decent science education, which led to a huge collaborative effort. We are now sixth in the world in science: no bluster, no scourging, no headlines, no Woodhead.

Myth number three is that he was a lone courageous battler against a teaching force unwilling to improve. We all know the odd teacher who has ground to a halt, but every year most of the 400,000 teachers in the land run their socks off, one of the most stressed of professions. No one came into teaching to lower standards, so why was it ever assumed that he had sole lien on virtue?

Myth number four is that he alone organised OFSTED to inspect all 24,000 schools. This ignores the huge contribution of Mike Tomlinson, Anthea Millett and Jim Rose, senior inspectors who achieved the near impossible.

So what will the reality be in future? According to press accounts, "friends of Woodhead" (come again?) say that his literary masterpieces will lambaste Labour next March. So it's no more Mr Nice Guy. After his huge pay rise and loyal support, the word "gratitude" seems to be missing here.

There are so many ironies: the critic of media studies now a media employee; the courtier of journalists who becomes one himself; the PR consultant whose public relations with teachers were less than brilliant. Was he really a figment of my imagination? I am past knowing.

I have begun to pen myhis devastating memoirs: "Went into the office, hammered the teaching profession, went home, climbed up mountain, climbed back down again, played with train set." Alas, like him, I'm bored already.

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