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
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