Sir Chris Woodhead's successes and failures
Chris CookPolicy editor, Newsnight
23 June 2015
Sir Chris Woodhead
Sir Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools, has died at the age of 68. A lot of young people have a lot to thank him for - part of the improvement in English education is the result of his tenure from 1994 to 2000. He reinvigorated the case for traditional teaching and he did so in an uncompromising style. But his personal behaviour meant that he was unable to build alliances. A less confrontational man might have picked fewer battles but won much bigger.
Mr Woodhead, as he was then, arrived as chief inspector in 1994 with little ceremony. He was appointed after an open application process by John Patten, a Tory education secretary. Looking back, he wrote: "I was chosen because I was an outsider - independent of the educational establishment". This is false memory. At the time, his arrival was not much noted. Most reports from the time simply note that the person asked to build up Ofsted, then a new body, was a man who had just been tasked with setting up a new curriculum body.
Indeed, it is hard to envisage someone more rooted in the so-called educational establishment. In 1994, he was best known - to people who knew him at all - as one of the three "wise men" who had sat on a primary education commission (he was the most argumentative of the three). Far from being an outsider, he was a former English teacher, teacher trainer, local authority official, local school inspector and curriculum official. Ex-pupils described him as a "trendy" teacher, prone to new teaching fads. He was, in short, a man shaped - above all - by the education system.
Changing the system
By 1997, however, he was his own man. His role was of national political importance. His writs were more widely respected than the ministers whose policies he enforced. The former "progressive" teacher became a firebrand fighting for traditional methods. He had turned the gentle school inspectorate into a fierce regulator. When New Labour took power in 1997, David Blunkett retained and then reappointed him as chief inspector because he was a visible guarantor that the new government wanted to be seen as tough on standards.
It is worth remembering his achievement: in 1995, a London school, Hackney Downs, was shut down after a protracted struggle. It was, the author of a report into the school's failures argued, not worth trying to save. Professor Michael Barber (later knighted) argued that the "few" who wanted to keep the school open were united in an "alliance for inadequacy". Prof Barber, now an adviser to Pearson, the education company, argued that failure should "no longer be tolerated" in the state system. None of these sentiments sounds that jarring to us in 2015.
But at the time the TES, a teachers' newspaper, responded to this by calling it the "murder" of a school. Prof Barber's proposed fight-back against weak performance, the newspaper argued, "begs enormous questions about the nature of state education, the meaning of success and failure". This intervention against a dismal school was "not sympathetic euthanasia but premeditated murder by the Government with an instrument of its own creation." This verdict sounds absurd to us today - our attitudes are a legacy of Sir Chris' hard edges. He left a system where failure is not acceptable.
I have written before that I am concerned that the English school system has reached a point where further pressure on teachers and head teachers may now be counter-productive. But the opening up of schools to regular scrutiny has helped England's poorest children, and the new Ofsted agency he helped to establish was a major part. School leaders have, for the most part, risen to the challenges made to them by regular inspections. The big question about Sir Chris's record is whether he could have done better were he a little less abrasive.
Could he have done better?
I think the answer is "yes". For example, look at Sir Chris's feud with Sir Tim Brighouse, then the head of Birmingham's school system. It was almost poetic, in that the two men were opposites: Mr Woodhead liked to wield a stick to push teachers on. Prof Brighouse preferred the carrot. So it was intensely irritating to the Ofsted chief that Birmingham schools improved markedly under Prof Brighouse's leadership. The relationship became poisonous enough that inspectors have told me that Mr Woodhead sought to amend Birmingham inspection reports to make them look worse (the chief inspector always insisted this was just "quality assurance").
The two men should have been allies: Prof Brighouse moved on weak teachers in Birmingham. Later, working in London, he set schools uncompromising targets. But Prof Brighouse led and persuaded. He didn't hector. And so Sir Tim both has a formidable record as an education reformer and retained the respect of teachers. He grasped that, when the classroom door shut, the teacher was in charge and so they could ignore you if they were not sold on your plans. Sir Chris's tool to control what happened in the classroom was the threat of the inspectors' knock on the door.
The result of that wasted energy and those missed alliances was not just that Sir Chris was less effective than he might have been. He also made what could have been dry, professional, technical debates into needless schisms. He made teachers feel put-upon and disempowered. Many teachers wore his disapproval as a badge of honour. And Sir Chris revelled in being disliked. He left a lot of burned bridges that have yet to be rebuilt. Sir Michael Wilshaw, his current successor, never even got the benefit of the doubt with thousands of teachers.
So Sir Chris Woodhead changed English schooling forever in ways that were unforeseeable in 1994. He opened debates and raised expectations. But you can't help feeling that with all that intelligence, energy, rebelliousness, ambition and drive, he could done even more if only he had sought to make a few more allies, persuade a little more and command a little less.
Sir Chris Woodhead, Ofsted chief - obituary
Chief Inspector of Schools who was the scourge of 'trendy' teaching and became an advocate of medically assisted dying