CHRIS WOODHEAD, a public figure I have admired for many years,
died last week. As Chief Inspector of Schools from 1994 to 2000, he
was loathed by the teaching unions. Yet his driving concern for
standards in education enabled both David Blunkett and Michael Gove
to press ahead with important reforms to our schools system.
As a newly qualified teacher in the early 1970s, he had adopted
the "progressive" teaching methods of his time. It was classroom
experience that led him to conclude that so-called "child-centred"
education was leaving pupils without basic knowledge and skills.
Children, he concluded, needed real content, delivered with
I recall the shock waves when he announced that there were
15,000 incompetent teachers who ought to be sacked. Later, he
regarded this as a gross underestimate. He also said that he was
paid "to challenge mediocrity, failure, and complacency". That he
Despite his reputation as a controversialist, he was a kind
person. Until shortly before his death, he answered questions on
education issues in The Sunday Times, often from parents
worried that their children were being let down by their schools.
His replies were courteous and considered, although the frustration
he still felt at the persistence of the old "progressive"
orthodoxies came through.
Woodhead claimed that he was not religious, but, in his mission
to raise standards in schools, he was, perhaps without realising
it, treading on theological ground. The issue he wrestled with was,
in the end, to do with the formation of persons. As a new teacher,
he adopted the then popular Rousseau-esque conviction that children
would naturally self-develop. Teachers were not there to teach so
much as to facilitate this process as non-judgemental
Abandoning this view brought him into more traditional
territory. He came to argue that education needs discipline, the
assimilation of real knowledge, and the internalising of good
habits. Wisdom does not develop spontaneously: it needs humility
and constructive criticism. Without such learning, children are
left adrift in a sea of experiences they have no tools to
Such a position is much closer to the traditional Christian
view, in which natural curiosity and instinct need to be encouraged
by training and, where necessary, correction. There is a right way,
and there are many wrong ways, and originality does not make up for
a failure to assimilate the basics.
Woodhead began his mission as a voice crying in the wilderness.
It is a tribute to his persistence and passion that his agenda now
seems, to most of us at least, irrefutable.