The trouble with Chris Woodhead

March 2 2001

The kindest thing that critics say of David Blunkett is that he knows he’s wrong – he’s just forced to implement daft policies by the bullies in Downing Street. There’s nothing so kind to be said about Chris Woodhead: his error is fabulous, his thinking is fatuous. But the poor boy really believes it.

Woodhead’s central thrust, repeated in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, has always been that children are being betrayed by “trendy teaching methods from the 1960s” – child-centered learning which abjures discipline and bans criticism and reduces all pupils to the lowest level of expectation. He believes this to be true because (and it is important to admit this) there is some truth in it.

Our schools did suffer from some bad teachers, some bad techniques and some bad management. More than that, there was an extraordinary and deeply undemocratic presumption that this was none of anybody else’s business. Local education authorities allowed their schools to be accountable to just about no one. Head teachers could be as secretive as they pleased, concealing their results and disguising their problems.

In the hands of Chris Woodhead, however, this truth has been treated in a way which William Blake would have understood: “A truth that’s told with bad intent is worth all the lies you can invent.”

The bigger truth, which is denied in Woodhead’s world, is that when schools fail, the most important single factor is the intake of children who go there, and the most important single aspect of intake is poverty. There is a skyscraper of evidence to show the link between poverty and educational attainment (One taste: At the age of 22 months, children from affluent families are already 14% higher up the educational-development distribution than children from poor families.) And the most important single statistic in contemporary Britain is this: when the Tories came to power in 1979, seven per cent of our children lived in poverty; by the time they left in 1997, that figure had risen to thirty per cent. One third of our children! And they are all supposed to go to school.

You have to understand that this poverty is not just about material hardship. Those children are growing up in communities that have collapsed, families that have broken; more than any other social class, they are exposed to drug abuse, alcohol abuse and to physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Miraculously, many of them survive. But a great many of them are deeply damaged and turn up in class with all kinds of emotional and behavioural disorders.

The next crucial part of the bigger picture is that the effects of that poverty on schools have been enormously aggravated by the reforms which were introduced by Kenneth Baker in 1989. This is a complicated story, but essentially, he set up a market in school places, and that market has created a terrifying polarisation. Schools with an intake of well-motivated middle class children do well in the league tables and attract extra children who bring extra funds with them. Schools with an intake of troubled poor children struggle in the league tables, lose children and lose money. It is these schools with a concentration of damaged children which are held up as failures.

When Chris Woodhead then blames “trendy teachers” for that failure, he inflicts a gross injustice on those teachers who have survived a twenty-year purge of a kind unseen in any other profession. But, more than that, he uses the power of his position to collude in the camouflaging of the truth. With the energetic support of newspapers like the Daily Telegraph, this entirely bogus analysis has been used to generate a set of entirely bogus solutions.

Confronted now with the abject failure of schemes like special measures and Fresh Start, Woodhead might have admitted his fault. But no. Perhaps he feels too trapped by his history of bold error to turn back. Perhaps he is simply an extremely brittle personality, driven more by anger than by reason. Whatever the explanation, he clings to his illusions and now attacks David Blunkett on the basis that all would have been well if only Blunkett had been even more extreme in building on Woodhead’s flawed foundations.

Blunkett should ignore him. Which is not to say that the education secretary should not be attacked. Indeed, he should be hounded around the clock from the opposite point of view – for his cowardly refusal to take on the political battle which had to be fought to reverse Kenneth Baker’s market-driven reforms and put our education system back onto a rational footing. It may well be that he knows that what he is doing is wrong. That is not enough. It leaves the rest of us in the deeply uncomfortable position of watching a debate in which we are invited to choose between a liar and a fool.

* The School Report by Nick Davies, published by Vintage, £6.99.