For more than two decades the most recognisable figure in British education has been Sir Chris Woodhead, as he is now (belatedly) titled; so to call him underrated is not entirely accurate. However, as Ed Balls when Secretary of State memorably put it, “Chris” was (and is) “out of step”: out of step, that is, with the powers that dominate the educational world, and who continue to undermine the life chances of millions of children and young people.
Woodhead’s pre-eminence is due to the clarity of his vision and to his strength of purpose in articulating it. For Woodhead, no utilitarian Gradgrind, education is properly the initiation of those capable of it into the best that has been thought and known: a good in itself, an integral part of any civilised society. However, the processes involved require discipline and formal teaching. Those intellectually or motivationally unsuited to academic work should pursue worthwhile practical activities. But this too requires discipline and effort, because whether potentially academic or not, children initially are unformed, prone to all kinds of weakness, requiring direction by stronger, wiser wills.
Much of this will seem obvious to anyone whose brain has not been addled by what passes for expertise in the world of education. But at every point the Woodheadian vision is anathema to that world. His vision is academically selective, with distinct paths for the academic and the non-academic. It is unsentimental: contrary to the child-centered and play-obsessed dogmata so dear to today’s educationists, children are incapable of learning or thinking without rigorous teaching. It rejects the notion that education should be about “skills” divorced from solid, traditional knowledge, or that learning should be “personalised” to suit the whims and styles of pupils. And it is resolutely hostile to any tendency to use education as a means of political or economic engineering, to be distorted in the name of inclusiveness, equality or wealth creation.
So Woodhead is indeed “out of step” with the ideology predominating in a world he has known all his professional life: teaching in schools in Shrewsbury, Gloucester and Bristol, tutoring at Oxford, serving as an officer in three local education authorities, and as chief executive at both the National Curriculum Council and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (where he led a radical rewriting of the National Curriculum), before in 1994 becoming Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools and head of Ofsted. In that role he became notorious for his claim that there were 15,000 incompetent teachers (only 15,000?) and for being the first major educationist to use his experience to speak the truth about what was really going on in education: a failure of teachers to teach, widespread erosion of academic standards and appallingly low levels of basic skills.
In 2000, however, Woodhead came to the conclusion that his views were so out of sympathy with the Labour government that, despite some successes, particularly in approaches to literacy, he had no option but to resign. Since then he has been active as chairman of Cognita, directing and running more than 50 schools in the open market, and a regular columnist for the Sunday Times. At Buckingham University he and I set up what he himself calls an “anti-department of education”, training teachers with success and in ever greater numbers.
In Michael Gove we now have a Secretary of State for Education actually criticising public exams, and much of Woodhead’s thinking resonates with the current administration, but not at the most crucial point of all. For Woodhead’s experience at the highest level led him to the conclusion that the state cannot successfully run the nation’s schools. Twenty-three years of state control of the national curriculum and exams have shown such a dream to be pure and reprehensible utopianism: the weight of the educational establishment and the demands of populist politics are just too great. Power ought to be returned to parents and schools: “schools funded by, but otherwise independent of the state, free to decide their own admissions policies and to define their own individual ethos, competing with one another in the market place,” Woodhead wrote in 2009, “then we would have some clear blue educational water.” Unfortunately we won’t. It is not only with Labour that Woodhead is out of step, for the Coalition seems as wedded to government control as anyone else.
As is well known, Woodhead is now in an advanced stage of motor neurone disease, catastrophic for anyone, but particularly for one for whom rock climbing and hill walking were so vital. He has been as brave, direct and frank about MND as about education. But whether expounding his literary and artistic passions — John Cowper Powys, Peter Lanyon and, above all, Geoffrey Hill — or upholding his educational philosophy, for all the cruelty of the disease, his great voice has not been silenced, nor his mind stilled. Those who care about the future of the nation’s children should heed what Woodhead is saying — in its entirety.