Book review

CLASS WAR: The state of British education
by Chris Woodhead

Does the former chief inspector of schools have the correct credentials  to lecture us about educational standards? Fred Inglis examines his achievements

This is a book that belongs to the history of publicity, not of educational thought. It puts me keenly in mind of a paragraph in the novelist Storm Jameson's autobiography: "I watched with amazement and misgiving the hand-over-fist  climb of an ambitious young man... a clever office-soldier with a great deal of charm... capable in good faith of arranging to advance himself at the expense of  less  adroit colleagues by any means except violent ones.  He was not vain,  not  unscrupulous in anything except the turning-points of his career."

Chris Woodhead so advanced himself that he  became  the  first  of Her Majesty's chief   inspectors  to  attain  the  doubtful  reward  of national celebrity. It would be hard to find a post for which  the  curious   mixture  of  his qualities – his deliberate, sometimes endearing recklessness, his powerful charm, his brutality and insolence, his executive incisiveness – were less suited.

This  is  the   senior  figure  in  local  authorities  who  made   clear   his   opinion  of colleagues  by   attending  their  meetings  with  his  feet up on the committee table; whose contract with the Associated Examining Board as a coursework moderator was  not  renewed  after he had failed to notify the Board when he moved address and, as a result, important correspondence had been neglected; who   boasted to a colleague, after getting a job training teachers at the University of Oxford,  that  he "never marked kids' work". This is the national custodian of the intellectual  virtues who, while deputy  to  Duncan   Graham  at  the  National  Curriculum  Council  at York,  sloped  off  to  London  to  press  his suit with the Baroness Blatch and her specialist aide, the head of Dixons, so that together they duly appointed the honest go-getter to his grand office.

Tim  Brighouse,   Birmingham's  famously  progressive   (and New    Labour)  chief education officer, tells the tale of  how  – once in that office – Woodhead radically adjusted  an  otherwise-benign   report  on  his  authority. When Woodhead's staff, leaking   like  a  urinal,  ensured  that Brighouse  saw  an   early  draft  as well as the published report, the Chief Inspector swore   detailed  vengeance on his colleagues – without ever catching the culprits.

Tom  Wylie,  a   senior  HMI  who  left the inspectorate while the going was good, remarked  of  Woodhead  that "he holds no opinions that would be out of place in the bar of the Wokingham Golf Club". The work in hand bears this richly out.  It is commended by the publishers as "the book every parent should read", but there is nothing  here  they  have  not  already   heard  Woodhead say in the columns of the Tory-favouring press so briefly hospitable to him.

Woodhead boasted to a colleague, at the  change  of  government in 1997,  "They daren't sack me. If they did, it would show they were soft  on  standards. " But his opening  chapter  on  "Standards"  disgraces the standards we should expect from such  a  voice:  those  of   careful   argument,   due   authority,    detailed   evidence, deliberative judgement and decent prose.

He calls for standards,   but  provides  no  index.  He  quotes  (and misnames)   the respected  American  commentator  E D  Hirsch  on cultural literacy, but is himself unlettered.  His  notes   (there   is  no  bibliography) contain 44 mostly unpaginated references,   almost all  newspaper  articles.   Mine  is  not   a  crabbed,   scholastic objection. There is absolutely no sense, in this boring yet outrageous book, of  any interest in the life of the mind that Woodhead was paid £115,000 a year to uphold.

When he quotes a serious intelligence in order to defend his idea of a university, he turns, as one should, to John Henry Newman. 
The result is a sheer embarrassment.  One's eye moves from Newman's grave and stately manner to Woodhead's  awful  clichés  and dead cadences: "whistling in the dark" (three times); "education cloud-cuckoo-land";   "Sorry, David" (four "sorry"s altogether); "the $64,000 question"; "a tad [three times]  underwhelming"... After a few short pages of this short book, only the reviewer  with  his  duties  can   go  on

One  has  to   conclude either that he can't think and doesn't know it, or that he has lost   interest  in  the  whole  business  but  realises   he had to publish some kind of self-vindication.  There  is  nothing   here  of that disinterested grapple with political expedience  that   would  give  his  writing  edge  and  vitality;   his  abstractions are contrived from ready-made triteness and stock responses. They even lack the raw slavering of the demagogue-journalist.

Thus we are again asked to condemn the robotic leftists and sentimental egalitarians  of  what   Woodhead  (borrowing from the not-very-intellectual lips of President    Reagan's   Education   Secretary)    calls      "the Blob"–  meaning "  the educational Establishment". But he nowhere  addresses  in  detail the arguments of this creature.  Instead,  we  meet  unnamed   slack-jawed  professors, incompetent local authorities, daffy primary-school   teachers  encouraging  children  to  misspell and write rubbish, and "the great and the good with whose names  I  could  fill   the page". It is an agreeable irony that, after his resignation, he has accepted a  post as part-time research professor at the University of Buckingham – not itself noted for the distinction of its research record.

When  Woodhead  is   right, he has given us no standards for judging his  rightness. The unspeakable gibberish of "learning initiatives", "higher order learning skills" and the repellent neologism  "learnacy" are all as mind-putrefying and heart-desiccating as  he  says.  But  when   he  progresses  to  his  "way forward",  he   returns  to the mad-eyed jargonists of American managerialism who devised this grisly stuff in the first place.

It   is    in  this  last  section  that  we  really   see  how  Chris  Woodhead's  zealous self-advancement  and   sudden  recklessness  twirled  rapidly  together to spin him into inaudible outer space.  With  casual contempt, he waves away the state as the vehicle  of  oppression  and   unfreedom,  disregarding its long, painful history as a moral agent in defence of  citizens against the arbitrary cruelty of power. And, with only the most cursory review  of a few examples, he wants to commit all education to a universal voucher system.

He doesn't understand the economics, or even justify them.  He cites a few figures and saunters on. When in trouble with difficult sums ("Numbers," he once said to a colleague, "I don't do"), he turns to the last resort of the lazy  populist  and   blames "the politicians".

No one can doubt that some large hiatus – as wide, perhaps,  as  the  Reformation or Enlightenment – has opened up in the  cultural  and  educational  continuities   of our somnambulist society. The idea that, in the seven years of his tenure, a raucous controversialist could do anything about it is one measure of how deep our slumbers are.

Fred Inglis's book 'People's Witness: the journalist in modern politics' is published next month by Yale University Press

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