End of an era

Reflecting on the announcement of the death of Sir Chris Woodhead, announced earlier today, I was reminded of two aspects of his time as Chief inspector at ofsted. Firstly, he raised the spectre of 15,000 incompetent teachers by extrapolating from numbers found in early inspections. For some reason that number stuck as the figure everyone remembered, even if it was probably not completely accurate. In fact, 15,000 teachers out of a profession of approaching half a million teachers is only around 3-4% rated as incompetent and it would be surprising if there weren’t some teachers performing less than effectively in a profession of that size. The question was, and is, how to help such teachers improve once they have been identified.

The second aspect of his time as Chief Inspector that I recall was his attempt to start what we would now call the coasting school debate. I suppose in that respect it is slightly ironic that his death is announced only the day after the House of Commons debated the Second Reading of the Education & Adoption Bill that seeks to deal once and for all with such schools. As Chief inspector, Chris Woodhead had less success in the 1990s in starting a debate about such schools. But where he led, others now follow.

I first met Chris Woodhead in 1979 when I came to Oxford to pursue my academic studies in the governance of education. At that time he was a tutor in English spending some of his time instructing PGCE students. He later went into education administration and then to the National Curriculum Council before ending up in charge of Ofsted. It will be interesting to see how history deals with him. As baby boomer, like myself, he moved from teaching in a comprehensive school in the 1970s to become a firm favourite of the right and advocated policies that I could not agree with, even where we shared a view on the nature of the problem.

During the passage of his final debilitating illnesses Chris had rather passed from sight, even though he was still only in his 60s. But, in his prime he was as well known, if not well liked, as any figure on the education scene, even well after he relinquished his role at ofsted.

The approach Chris Woodhead took to improvement was to challenge in a forthright manner. I recall that the Lib Dem Education Association invited him to speak at a fringe during the Brighton Conference in, I think, 1997. The debate was interesting and robust but there was little or no meeting of minds. But, without a doubt Sir Chris Woodhead was one of the key figures in education in England during the 1990s even if he was too controversial for some.

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