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An inspector who made the right call

03 July 2015

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 authority.

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 did, relentlessly.

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 companions.

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 assimilate.

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.

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