‘Don’t say I was wrong’ – Chris Woodhead is suffering from motor neurone disease but his guns are
There are few giants in education as big as Chris Woodhead. Love him or loathe him, his tenure as chief inspector of schools was full of incident and drama. His rows with the teaching profession were legendary: the claim, just months into the job, that 15,000 teachers were incompetent and should be sacked set the tone of his relationship with the profession. His rows with the then education secretary, David Blunkett, were just as memorable. He left in 2000.
Since then he has flitted in and out of the limelight. He has written books, runs a chain of cut-price private schools and has a post at Buckingham University’s education department. He wanted this to be an “antidote” to the educational research establishment, the majority of which, he says, reject his passion for grammar schools and “traditional”, fact-based learning.
So outspoken is the man, it seemed there was little left he could say to surprise. Then, just over a week ago, he revealed what he had kept hidden for three years. In 2006, he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND), a degenerative disease that causes weakness and wasting of muscles, loss of mobility in the limbs, and difficulties with speech, swallowing and breathing.
In typical style he came out all guns blazing, declaring he would rather drive a wheelchair over a cliff than go to a clinic for assisted suicide, such as Dignitas, in Switzerland, where he thought he would be faced with “bearded social workers”.
We meet in his hotel in Buckingham. It’s only when he stands that you can see the effects of his illness. Once a keen runner and climber, his legs are now severely weakened. He can walk only short distances with a stick and he uses one hand to help lift the other to meet a handshake.
“I’ve come to terms with it in the sense that I’ve got it, it isn’t fair, but I’ve got it. But I’m not sure anyone could ever say they’ve come to terms with a disease like this. I think it would be pretending to have an acceptance and courage and stoicism that I haven’t got … It is a bugger,” he says.
On his lap lies the manuscript of his new book, the Desolation of Learning, to be published next week. He wants to talk about his book and his views on education. He has “come out” as ill (for a while he put off telling people, blaming a broken ankle for his mobility problems), but he does not want to be defined by it.
The book starts with a traditional romp through the territory of “dumbing down”, tracking exam questions on papers from 1929 to today – an analysis which, he says, shows “unarguably” that A-level and GCSE results have improved because exams have been dumbed down. “It’s not that the teaching is better or that students every year get more intelligent. It’s that the exams have got easier,” he says.
His argument goes on: the Labour government, in its quest for equality, has betrayed children by denying what Woodhead sees as a given – that children are destined for different things. Labour has shaped an education system designed to make learning more “accessible” and “personalised” (both words, he declares, make him “sick”), rather than rigorous.
What is the point?
A chapter entitled, Has Mr Balls met Jim Shepherd? cites DH Lawrence’s paper The Education of the People, in which Lawrence refers to a boy called Jimmy, who is “not very bright”. “Why do we think that we can make him brighter than God made him?” Woodhead asks.
“I’ve taught, and I can still remember trying to interest children who had no interest whatsoever in English. They didn’t want to be in the classroom. If I’m honest, I didn’t want them to be there either because they were disruptive to children who did want to learn. What was the point? And if we had had a system whereby those young people were able to follow practical educational courses that gave them a sense of worth, a sense that they weren’t dull and less intelligent than others, it would have been much better for them.”
I suggest the problem is that Jimmy’s destiny wasn’t “god given” but dictated by the opportunities he had in early life. Shouldn’t the state work to right those inequalities and help people become more socially mobile?
Woodhead acknowledges that the advantages a child has at birth dictate its life chances. “I think it would be unlikely that large numbers of grammar school kids would come from those disadvantaged areas – the genes are likely to be better if your parents are teachers, academics, lawyers, whatever. And the nurture is likely to be better. But that doesn’t mean that there are not going to be DH Lawrences.”
His answer is to teach all children the basics: to read and write, using phonics, and to be numerate. Then the solution is selection and grammar schools, and a voucher system whereby parents could buy their child’s way to a better life. Instead of the state, a market should be trusted to dictate education: the schools that parents don’t want would sink, while others would flourish and be allowed to make a profit (he admits self-interest here – that his company, Cognita, would be the first to profit). He accepts his selection-based voucher system wouldn’t be entirely fair, but argues that just because a small minority would lose out, you shouldn’t reject reforms that would benefit most children.
“Life isn’t fair. We’re never going to make it fair,” he says. “It’s not fair that I’ve got motor neurone disease. You can’t do anything about MND, but you can do something about the kid who’s born into a family where there are no books and no conversation and no language. We can get primary education right. Pratting around trying to make England the best place in the world to grow up is not the way to do it.”
There is, he claims, a “mythology” that he was negative about everything in education. He points to his introduction of exemplar schools into Ofsted reports. He insists that where he is accused of denigrating teachers and the achievements of pupils: “It’s just whistleblowing.”
“I do mourn and resent what seems to me to be a desolation of learning,” he says. “I think what has happened is a tragedy. I feel stronger now because it’s got so much worse under Labour.”
Woodhead is still unable to resist controversy. He is fantastically bitchy in talking about two ex-colleagues who, with him, produced the “three wise men” report on primary education at the beginning of the 1990s. Of Sir Jim Rose, who has just completed a government-backed review of the primary curriculum, he writes: “It’s already very clear that Sir Jim is not going to fix anything. He’s danced obediently to the secretary of state’s tune…”
Of Robin Alexander, who is writing the independent primary review to rival Rose’s government-backed one, he says: “Robin finds it difficult to accept that anyone has a view or can put it better than him. It was a nightmare working on the three wise men.”
And on Mike Tomlinson, who was his deputy at Ofsted: “I was never sure whether [he] knew what he thought about anything.” He claims Ofsted lost its teeth the minute he left, and that the system of self-evaluation and shorter inspections has meant they are no longer rigorous.
He says he can no longer say whether there are 15,000 “incompetent” teachers, because Ofsted inspections wouldn’t show them. He suspects there are more, but they are being trained to deliver the Labour government’s definition of education. “There is a huge propaganda machine that’s lobotomising the teaching profession, that is making it virtually impossible for any teacher who disagrees with the official line, to teach as they want.”
More than anything, what has defined Woodhead was his disagreement with the left in education. “The left should ask why they hated me. I am saying I care as much about the disadvantaged child as anybody. We may – we do – disagree about what should be done. But look at what I say, tell me why you disagree, and look into your heart and mind and at the policies that have been pursued by a left or mid-left government and ask whether they have worked and whether it’s the reasons I say it is. I don’t want to trade slogans and rhetoric. I want them to think.”
Does he have any regrets of his outspoken ways, particularly regarding teachers? “No, because what was needed was an inspectorate that was honest, that told the truth, which means praising that which deserves praise but, equally, being hard on what was failing children,” he says.
But he admits he didn’t explain himself clearly enough. “Of course, I wish it had been possible to explain my thinking more clearly. The whole issue became so emotive – accountability, teacher inspection – that it was very hard for reason to pop up with any serious voice. Emotion was riding too high. Maybe I did the right thing in going when I did. It wouldn’t have got any better. Maybe a few years on, the emotion has subsided and I can engage with my leftwing critics.”
What if, after all the explaining, including this book, which will probably be seen as his swansong, people just think he was wrong? “On what part,” he asks. “Pick a part and we’ll debate it, but don’t just say I was wrong.”
But for Woodhead, the rows with teachers, with the Labour government and with the Guardian seem as fresh now as they were during the 1990s. They still seem to be deeply part of who he is. He cares what we think. “If this book lifted the debate out of the ‘he’s got no sympathy for the crushed of society’ thing … If we started talking about what works and what doesn’t work, then that would be great. That’s my ambition in the writing of the book.”
As he comes to a close, clearly tired by nearly two hours of talking, he smiles wryly and adds: “You can say I smiled wryly at the thought of it being achieved.”
Extracts from A Desolation of Learning
“There are two fundamentally different views of education. On the one hand, there is the emphasis on the child. The insistence that everything must be relevant to the child’s experience and to the perceived needs of society. The argument that the teacher should be a mentor or a coach who facilitates the growth of the child’s understanding. The current obsession with personalisation. On the other, there is the belief that the school is an institution in which children are initiated by teachers, who are authorities in their subjects, into a body of knowledge which has no immediate connection to their lives or necessary relevance to the problems of society. I believe in the latter.”
On his career
“In starting out as a teacher at the end of the 60s I never for one moment thought of applying for a job in the independent sector. I wanted to work in the state sector. I wanted to teach children who didn’t have books on the sitting room wall and whose parents didn’t necessarily discuss politics over a glass of claret at dinner. I used to look down my lower middle-class nose at anyone who had been educated at public school ? I still saw the state as the solution and not the problem. In part this was because I still believed in Tony Blair, I thought his often stated determination to reform education was serious. But it was also because I was still the grammar school boy from south London whose mum had been the lollypop lady at the local primary. We all drag our ball and chain behind us. Privilege on a plate. The chasm between the cloistered calm of the great public school and the turbulent meanness of the typical inner-city comprehensive worried me ? it still worries me.”
On his colleagues
“Jim [Rose] and I stood shoulder to shoulder for the best part of a decade. I was never sure whether my other deputy Sir Mike Tomlinson, knew what he thought about anything, I believe that Jim did. It saddens me that, for whatever reason, he’s decided that the time is right to change his mind so spectacularly.”
The life and times of Chris Woodhead
22 May 2009
Due to publish A Desolation of Learning, a critique on the current education system.
3 May 2009
Reveals that he has motor neurone disease. He writes: “I am clear … that it is better to end it than continue a life that is extremely frustrating for me and onerous to others .”
Becomes chairman of Cognita, a chain of for-profi t private schools. He argues that ” the future probably lies in an education sector where more schools are run for profit.”
Publishes Class War, on the state of the education system.
Becomes professor of education at the University of Buckingham, the only independent university in the UK.
Resigns as chief inspector of schools in England after a series of rows with the then education secretary, David Blunkett.
At a Q &A session with student teachers, Woodhead fails to condemn teachers who have relationships with pupils. His former wife adds to the controversy by saying he had started a relationship with a pupil when he was a teacher. (He denied this.)
Reappointed as chief inspector by Labour. Awarded a substantial pay increase.
In a pamphlet published by the rightwing thinktank Politeia, Woodhead suggests that local education authorities could instill a “dependency culture” among schools.
Woodhead angers teaching unions by estimating that there are “15,000 incompetent teachers” and calling for their dismissal.
Appointed chief inspector of schools by the Conservative government. He is reported as saying: “Sack the useless teachers.”
Becomes chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.
Known as the “three wise men”, Chris Woodhead, Robin Alexander and Jim Rose call for a radical overhaul of primary teaching methods.
Woodhead becomes chief executive of the National Curriculum Council.
Deputy chief education officer for Devon, and then Cornwall.
English adviser and, later, chief adviser for Shropshire LEA.
Tutor at Oxford University. During this period he wrote a letter to the Times Educational Supplement expressing his fears about education under Thatcher.
After reading English at Bristol, followed by a postgraduate certificate of education (PGCE), he begins work as an English teacher at the Priory school, Shrewsbury, then as head of English at Newent school, Gloucester, and Gordano school, Avon.
20 October 1946
Born the son of an accountant and a school secretary in the southern suburbs of London.
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