Woodhead's version of the education system is ragged and his plans to mend it unacceptable

5th June 2009 at 01:00
Title: A Desolation of Learning. Author: Chris Woodhead. Publisher: Pencil-Sharp Publishing (May 2009). Reviewer: Adrian Elliott

To many, this book will have the feel of a well-worn jumper; it will be comfortably familiar to some, but scratchy and full of holes to others. Chris Woodhead argues that learning has been dumbed down by ministers, academics, headteachers and his own former colleagues. His solution? Grammar schools and a voucher system.

Woodhead claims any apparent rise in standards results only from examinations becoming easier. He compares past questions with those of today but, as elsewhere, his evidence is selective.

He quotes a straightforward 2008 geography A-level question about theme parks but ignores much tougher questions in the same section on resource depletion and environmental impact. The one cited gained just 0.6 per cent of the final mark.

Few reading him on the decline of literature would imagine that the GCSE paper for AQA last year included questions on two Shakespeare plays, Goldsmith, Shaw, Chaucer, Austen, Emily Bronte, Hardy and Golding.

He denies nostalgia, yet a lament for a lost age runs throughout.

The past papers quoted were taken by very few - the brightest of their generation - in stark contrast to today. Yet A-level English examiners in 1956 still complained of "many whose candidature had been a waste of time and had clearly never read the books", of "absent paragraphs, commas used instead of full stops and apostrophes unknown". O-level maths examiners criticised the wholesale entering of candidates "whose knowledge was too slight for them to have any chance of passing".

While Woodhead argues selection was successful and also benefited poorer children, the evidence, from the 1950s onwards, tells a very different story. In 1959, 40 per cent of all grammar school pupils achieved fewer than four O-levels, and of 9,000 tracked in one survey, only 23 from the unskilled working class emerged with two A-levels.

Complacency was rife. One head of a highly selective Dorset school, when asked by an inspector why a third of pupils left the school with no O-levels, replied: "Some always find the grammar school challenge too much." Inspectors judged it a good school. Was this not the true desolation of learning?

Vouchers, Woodhead accepts, would represent a huge redistribution of wealth - but from poor to rich - while, he again admits, greatly benefiting private school providers such as his own.

The strongest charge against Woodhead is inconsistency. At Ofsted, he castigated inner-city teachers, admitting no excuses about a school's intake, but now apparently regards many children as effectively ineducable. He deplores a formulaic curriculum and the loss of maverick teachers, but fails to accept his role at both the National Curriculum Council and Ofsted in furthering this.

I neither recognise the education system he describes nor accept his proposed solutions. Nor, I suspect, will most teachers and parents.

Letters, pages 26-27

Adrian Elliott is a former headteacher and author of 'State Schools Since the 1950s: The Good News' published by Trentham Books (2007).

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