With Sir Chris Woodhead’s passing, we lose the second of the three great champions in the battle between education and progressivism that has dominated the last fifty years.
The first, Sir Rhodes Boyson, began by showing that pupils from secondary modern schools could pass GCEs that were supposed to be beyond them, and made his oversubscribed Highbury Grove both an icon and a focal point for progressive ferocity. He became schools minister under Margaret Thatcher, but she kept him out of the top job in favour of Norman St-John Stevas and Sir Keith Joseph.
The third hero, Sir Michael Wilshaw, is still with us but, as he told the Wellington Festival last week, is recovering from an operation that has cost him some lung capacity and beginning to talk of retirement.
Of the three, Sir Chris attracted the most hatred. “Dr Sir Rhodes,” as he liked to style himself, was seen by our opponents as an Edwardian caricature, a throwback to the age of Billy Bunter and Whacko!
Chris Woodhead went for their throat. I was on a training course with Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI) the day after he said that 15,000 teachers were in the wrong job, and the inspectors were hopping mad. Their latest report had shown that teaching was getting a little better rather than a little worse, and here he was ignoring the good news and making the point he was going to make anyway. “Chris Woodhead,” said one of them, “is not an HMI,” which was no more than the truth. In practice, Ofsted was run during his tenure by a group of senior HMI, some brilliant – his successor, Sir Mike Tomlinson – and some, like Elizabeth Passmore, very tough-minded but also very accurate. He left Ofsted better than he found it, but I’ve never been sure who actually did the work.
David Blunkett hit the right note on Tuesday by emphasising Chris Woodhead’s rejection of the link between poverty and ability, and his determination to ensure the best possible education for all pupils, whatever their background.
I read his final newspaper column on Sunday, in which he considered the best way to deliver a reprimand to a pupil who kept forgetting her homework, the problem of high-attaining pupils losing enthusiasm after SATs, and the lack of textbooks in junior schools. All important points, but no longer quite the cutting edge of national policy. Exactly why he resigned, we don’t know and probably never will. I hope he rests in peace.
Sir Michael Wilshaw spoke from the heart at Wellington and gave the best talk I’ve heard from a holder of his office (as Sir Keith Joseph liked to refer to himself). His fellow commuters to Canon Street each morning appeared to him unhappy, and were going to work chasing green and red dots around screens that “corroded their soul”. This did not happen to teachers, though he was angry at television programmes like the BBC’s Tough Young Teachers that showed “bright eyed and bushy-tailed” beginners having to cope with “Jack the lad and Sally Show-off” with little or no support from senior staff.
Teaching, he said, “may not be the best paid job in the world but, done well, there is no better job to satisfy the soul and energise the spirit. There is no better job to bring out the altruism in us all.” His speech is here and I’m not going to summarise it further. Please read it, and reflect on the close to fifty years’ experience behind it. Sir Michael continued his references to retirement and to the soul in responses to questions, and I hope this is not portentous.
Nicky Morgan continued Michael Gove’s tradition of Secretaries of State speaking at the Festival, and her presence was a mark of its importance. She outlined government policy clearly and well, as in her article here earlier in the week, and took questions from teachers and children, some of which put her on her mettle.
With roughly two thousand people attending each day, the Wellington Festival has grown to be the largest event of its type in the country. For me, the highlights, alongside Sir Michael’s brilliance, were a very comprehensive and well-argued talk on dyslexia by Professor John Stein of Oxford, illustrated by recent research on brain structures and genetics, a superb double act by Tony Little and Percy Harrison on Eton’s leadership programme - Eton will not, incidentally, open any foreign branches – and Tom Sherrington’s talk on the national baccalaureate, a combination of (most) Ebac subjects and the Duke of Edinburgh’s award, with an entry level for pupils from the special school sharing his new school’s site. The new school? Highbury Grove.