Woodhead's way

20th May 2005 at 01:00
Eyebrows have been raised by plans for a cut-price independent school and teachers can't help but be wary, says Gordon Cairns

One name guaranteed to raise the hackles of a large number of teachers is that of Chris Woodhead, former head of the Ofsted inspectorate in England.

No inspector expects to be welcomed with open arms wherever he goes, but Mr Woodhead's bombastic style and love of the soundbite managed to make him a hate figure and alienated teachers in Scotland, even though his remit never extended north of the border.

Now his plan to open an independent school in Scotland has been attacked by teacher unions and parent groups as an almost knee-jerk response, treatment a less high profile figure would not have received.

The fear is that in our celebrity-obsessed culture parents with a wide selection of schools, but with little background knowledge to make an informed decision, may be attracted to Mr Woodhead's schools by their relatively low cost and his high profile name, in the way that they choose their pasta sauce because Lloyd Grossman's signature is on it.

But looking into how Mr Woodhead runs his chain of schools in England and his educational philosophy, a Scottish private school run by Mr Woodhead's company Cognita becomes a distinctly more worrying proposition.

The emphasis is on tradition. It seems that by going back in time we can eradicate all of the problems that beset education today. In the past, schools had no discipline problems and churned out well-rounded individuals who could all read and write. But Mr Woodhead's simple approach may prove attractive to parents, conveniently forgetting the reality of their own time in school.

In a recent interview, Mr Woodhead expanded on his educational theories. He thinks personalised learning is "a nonsense". He elaborated that it doesn't matter who is learning French as each person learns the same verbs, thereby rejecting the last 40 years of educational research.

It is incredible that a man who rose to the top of the system in England is in the dark when it comes to people having different learning styles. The rawest student on their first placement very quickly comes to recognise that what helps one pupil understand is not going to work for the whole class.

And teachers who decide to work for Cognita will have to adapt to quite a different job from that carried out in the state sector. There will be performance-related pay, although this could be problematic in determining what work deserves to be rewarded.

Furthermore, staff will be provided with pre-prepared teaching materials and lesson plans for some lessons, so removing the creative, and one of the most rewarding elements of the job.

Cognita, it seems, does not offer learning tailored to pupils' needs, Mr Woodhead dismisses this as a "pick-and-mix curriculum", which makes one wonder what the parents are paying for. Cognita schools in England, which charge between pound;6,000 and pound;9,000 a year, are described as being at the cheaper end of the independent market where there is an emphasis on whole-class teaching, which is obviously less costly than supporting individual learning needs in the classroom.

Mr Woodhead's company has been called the "Tesco" of private schools in that its establishments offer value for money, are sprouting up everywhere and seem to have a "pile 'em high" policy. It may seem a little odd that the schools have proved very popular when the customers can simply go next door and pick up their purchases for free. But education is an unusual product in that, for some, where the product is bought is more important than the quality of the product on offer.

In his recent interview, Mr Woodhead also turned his attention to the Scottish education system, where it seems teachers are running the show because of the end of league tables. He said the abolition of league tables in Scotland is down to the Scottish Executive pandering to the demands of teaching unions. Apparently, teachers hate league tables as they show how poorly their school is doing in comparison with similar schools.

As league tables are the crudest measurement of what a school does for its pupils by focusing on results, it can be safe to assume that, when Scotland gets its first Cognita school, passing exams will play an important part in its pupils' education.

Taken at face value, schools run by Chris Woodhead, a former chief inspector of schools have to be a better option than schools run by businessmen, but the thought of this former inspector being in charge of an education establishment must make any teacher with the child's best interest at heart uncomfortable.

Gordon Cairns is a supply teacher.

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