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‘Mind over Muddle’, by Sheila Lawlor

Mind over Muddle

Sheila Lawlor

Friday 26th June 2015: Chris Woodhead, England’s Chief Inspector of Schools 1994-2000, died this week. Here Politeia’s Director, Sheila Lawlor reflects on the life and work of a friend who saw his task as purging English schools of the mediocrity left by low level ‘progressive’ teaching and doing battle with its perpetrators.

Chris Woodhead got the job by accident. At the time in 1994 the powers that be wanted someone who would not ‘go native’. Woodhead, I was told by one such power-that-was, was not the favourite, because he was not deemed, in official speak, ‘reliable’. I took that to mean he was his own man – something which should have been in his favour. He was indeed the strongest of the candidates – intellectually independent, clever and academically sensitive to what the aims of education should be.

And while able, he was also a dreamer.

That’s the odd thing to say about Woodhead, the scourge of the 15,000 teachers who were not, he said, up to the job; the protagonist of rigour; the first inspector who, though an educationalist by profession, despised education research, seeing it as little more than an ‘irrelevance and distraction’. He should have known.

He had come through that world and reached its pinnacle from an English degree from Bristol and seven years as a school teacher, working his way up through schools to become head of English at Gordano School in Portishead, then with a stint at Oxford as a PGCE education department tutor; then adviser to the education authorities for Shropshire, then Devon and Cornwall Councils. From there he moved to the education quangoes: the National Curriculum Council in 1991 (as deputy and then chief executive), the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, and then the big prize, England’s chief inspector of schools and head of OFSTED in 1994.

When he moved to the high office in Kingsway and rolled up his sleeves, Woodhead went to war against the world he had left behind.

It is not clear whether he had subscribed to its progressive nostra to rise so effortlessly to its pinnacle. He was clever and educated enough to realise that the theory or method of teaching was no substitute for knowing the subject, or loving it, as he knew and loved his. Learning built on the foundations of knowledge. Teachers should teach subjects, each with its body of knowledge.

Such a view was anathema to the armies of those responsible for England’s schools – the education officials in local and central government, the teachers’ unions, the teacher trainers in the education departments training teachers in theory, not educating them in subjects, with candidates for the profession often trained to teach a subject in which they had no formal grounding, even to A level. Over the decades, the education system had become rotten to its core; each reform had been used to perpetuate and extend what was already bad. Many schools had become centres of aimless child centred activity, if not educational chaos. Those that had escaped, and whose success was testified by the high academic achievements of their pupils, had been castigated and sanctioned by OFSTED’s predecessor body, HMI, and its chief inspectors. The misapprehension prevailed that teaching to impart knowledge and train the mind was an antediluvian Dickensian notion, and a practice which, besides, would further disadvantage the poor.

Woodhead had little interest in class or culture, and he was not obsessed by the fashions through which pedagogy progressed from the 1950s, whether ‘multicultural mathematics’ or the feminisation of subjects. His interest was in learning, and the power which a good education gave to the human person, irrespective of their background, including the power to enter another world. That mattered for every pupil.

In public life he had no fear of saying what he thought. In private he took refuge himself behind his calling, wholeheartedly befriending those who shared it. Like me, he had encountered what inspectorates before him had rated ‘good schools’, or lauded as ‘good teaching’ or what to this day is called ‘best practice’. This could be a class of 12/13 year olds engaged in ‘cross curricular skilling with creative writing’ in the computer room- i.e. English – without using or knowing how to use basic punctuation such as sentences and full stops. Such supposed teaching would be lauded by the inspectors for liberating the pupils from outdated or irrelevant conventions. Or it might be the pupil in a well respected London school who having been taught no body of knowledge was engaged in identifying ‘sources’ for GCSE and was prompted by a reference to ask, ‘Who was Churchill’?

Woodhead’s reputation amongst many teachers and education professionals was that of an unreconstructed ‘gradgrind’ who insisted on ‘rote learning’ and ‘phonic’ methods in teaching. In short a reactionary figure washed up from a distant past. Yet intellectually he was offbeat in the manner bequeathed by the sixties and seventies, with preferences which no young fogey would tolerate – for ‘lit crit’; for Joe Allen’s hamburger and jazz basement restaurant, and as traditionalists discovered (including those who hesitated over his appointment), for nonchalant understatement, amounting to a ‘culpable’ lack of passion in making the (or any) case.

But his sense of mission remained throughout his time as chief inspector until 2000: to counter the denial, rampant then, and still far too much in evidence today, that the knowledge of a subject is irrelevant and should not be taught at school. It was that same mission which inspired an education secretary, Michael Gove, ten years later to return the curriculum and exams to the service of imparting knowledge. If truth were known, though Woodhead did not say it, probably the 15,000 teachers whom he believed were incompetent did not have that basic knowledge.

For a man who created a storm whenever he opened his mouth, it might seem odd that he used words moderately and austerely, and he chose them carefully and with considerable effect.

Austerity, ability, single-mindedness. These were the characteristics of a general who led the charge against those who betrayed the standard. He found a far greater army in the world beyond education professionals, amongst parents, a new generation of aspirant, educated teachers, academics in the great universities for whom subject teaching matters, and yes, amongst egalitarians who believe, like the French socialists, that only through a rigorous education can the poor escape the poverty that shackles not just the body, but the mind.

For Woodhead, the mind mattered above all else. Yet he was a fit, athletic person, a mountain climber who pushed himself to the heights and wanted the same for those whose schools he inspected. He took to the task with relish: even, perhaps particularly, when it meant pitting himself against those who were responsible for England’s schools and who, on account of ideology or intellectual weakness, were just not up to the job.

*Sheila Lawlor is director of Politeia.

Chris Woodhead’s publications for Politeia include How to Lower School Standards: Mike Tomlinson’s Modest Proposal, and A Question of Standards: Finding a Balance.
He was a member of Politeia’s Education Commission and co-authored its Comparing Standards series including:

  • The Recruitment, Employment and Retention of Teachers, with D. Burghes, B. Moon, J. O’Leary, A. Smithers and S. Lawlor.
  • Teaching the Teachers, D. Burghes, J. Marenbon, B. Moon, A. Smithers and S. Lawlor.
  • Academic and Vocational, 16-19 Year Olds, with D. Burghes, H. Lutz, J. Marenbon, S. Patiar, A. Smithers, R. Tombs and S. Lawlor.
  • Comparing Pre-School Standards, with S. Prais, C. St John Brooks and S. Lawlor.

Dr Sheila Lawlor

Dr Sheila Lawlor is Politeia’s Founder and Director of Research. Her background is as an academic historian of 20th century British political history, having started her working life as research fellow at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and Churchill College, Cambridge. Her academic publications include Churchill and the Politics of War 1940-41 and for Politeia she has written on social, economic and constitutional policy.

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