The former inspector calls

The establishment want to say that everything in the educational garden is lovely and the failures are the fault of feral children and feckless parents. The politicians at the moment just seem to accept that. I don't know why they are so lily-livered. After all, they wouldn't be with any other industry."

Chris Woodhead is in combative mood.

But as the mention of his name alone is enough to induce high blood pressure in many staffrooms, this is little surprise. He's been railing against the status quo since he was chief inspector of English schools in the late 1990s.

Now he’s chairman of Cognita, which owns a chain of private schools in England. He’s also educational adviser to the Conservative Party. Cognita is now looking at Edinburgh for its first Scottish institution, though he is scathing about educational policy in devolved Scotland.

Sitting in the dimly-lit coffee room of the Park Lane Hotel in London, he delivers a damning reply – in a quiet, almost weary tone – to a question about how devolution has affected Scottish education.

In the Scottish parliament, he feels, the governing parties and the SNP are all in thrall to the teaching unions. “It is a disturbing situation, ” he says. “There is not much real debate going on there. There’s a collusion and the fundamental problems are not being discussed.”

In short, the politicians are allowing the voices of children and parents to be drowned out by the self-serving demands of education providers.

Woodhead says the abolition of league tables, lack of testing and the introduction of parent forums do little to ensure schools are accountable.

“It’s not perfect but the national curriculum in England is designed to give parents a measure of how their children are doing compared to other children at seven, 11 or 14. All the schools are doing the same thing at the same time.

“Of course teachers don’t like it because it can show that they are not doing a good job. But educational policy shouldn’t be about pandering to the teaching unions, it’s about trying to meet the needs of children and parents.

“And of course teaching unions hate league tables because parents can look at them and say: ‘Well this school has a similar catchment area to ours but it’s doing a lot better. Why is that?’

“How else are the schools going to be accountable to the parents that they serve?

“We don’t want teachers to decide the basis on which information is provided to the local community. The provider interest seems to be pretty dominant in the education industry.”

Woodhead is equally scathing when it comes to discussing education minister Peter Peacock’s plan to change school boards into more ad hoc parent forums.

“That’s fine if the school is a good school – but what if it isn’t? The head teacherwill just ignore the parent forum, ” he suggests.

Woodhead, who would be brought in to look over the national curriculum in England in the event of a Tory election victory, is on his way to lunch with a fellow traditionalist and member of the blue chip and blue rinse Headmasters’ Conference.

But his current intervention in the education debate is not simply a question of whinging. His hope is that Cognita, which made its first acquisition in November but is already Britain’s biggest owner of private schools, may become the Tesco of private education.

So far, his stock market-backed firm has acquired 20 schools in the space of a few months. All of them are small-to-medium schools charging between pounds-6000 and pounds-9000 a year, which is low-to-medium in the range of fees. They are mostly in the south of England, but the company is keen to expand and is interested in acquiring schools in Scotland. They are looking to buy 10 more schools by the end of the year, in affluent areas with plenty of potential pupils and where there is dissatisfaction with
the state education on offer.

They are expanding some of the schools and also looking towards a possible stock market flotation in a few years’ time. The current noises about removing charitable status from private schools in Scotland would not deterWoodhead. “I don’t particularly see why private schools should have charitable status anyway.”

Cognita’s schools will maintain their own identities, but will all deliverWoodhead’s ideal of a traditional education.

“Many people would sneer at that – the stereotype is that 30 years ago, children were made to memorise, they were brainwashed and they weren’t taught how to think. I would say that is nonsense. We had to learn facts but then we had to use the facts we had learned to inform our thinking, ” he says.

“For instance, we had to learn Shakespeare quotations but we had to understand them – then we would have to answer questions like: ‘Was King Lear more sinned against than sinning?’ It is a parody to say it was about cramming facts into children’s heads.”

There will be a lot of emphasis on whole-class teaching. In common with other schools at the “value for money” end of the spectrum, Cognita’s will not be offering learning tailored to individuals.

The idea prompts Woodhead to assume a more upright position in his chair and frown with annoyance.

“The idea that a child can build up a pick-and-mix curriculum customised to their own need is unworkable. That was a key part of the Tomlinson report. But it doesn’t matter if you are learning French or I am learning French we both have to learn the same verbs. You can’t operate on your own, every child has to acquire the same knowledge and skills in certain
subjects. Personalised learning is a nonsense.

“Teachers have got to make sure the children understand what is being taught of course, but teaching itself doesn’t have to be reinvented for the 21st century.”

Teachers in Cognita schools will also receive performance-related bonuses and be offered pre-prepared teaching material, including lesson plans appropriate to the age and stage of their classes.

“We don’t want to make teachers feel they are being told what to do. But we will bring people together to create a range of teaching materials that make sense and are easy to use. It will save them a lot of preparation time too.

“We want to make the best expertise available to all children. Phonics is the best way to teach children to read so we will deliver a phonics programme.”

While accepting that there have been advances in diagnosing children with learning difficulties, Woodhead says the increase in labels for children has not been helpful. “It can be used as an excuse rather than confronting a failure of teaching, ” he says.

According to his analysis, children with problems are not actually benefiting from many of the interventions aimed at helping them.

“I don’t think there is any evidence that these new methods are actually teaching any more children to read than were taught to read 20 to 30 years ago “A quarter of all 11-year-olds can’t read to the level of the national curriculum – half of the boys can’t read to the level of the national curriculum. These children are going to have real problems in their lives.

“If we are talking about addressing the needs of children who have problems, I would say we have got it wrong, we are bloody awful at it.”

Woodhead has recently been involved in a BBC documentary about the remaking of Ask the Family, the once-popular quiz show hosted by Robert Robinson.

The experience was a lesson in itself, he says. “They are trying to restart that but they are finding the children just can’t answer the kind of questions they could answer 20 to 30 years ago. We need to be asking, why is that, why can’t we do that?

“Yes, people have to think for themselves but they have to learn as well. I think we are actually equipping children less and less to think for themselves. A lot of the theories of educationalists don’t really stack up.”

Cognita, which is backed by the private equity firm Englefield, is attempting to keep its management lean, employing Woodhead only three days a week and basing its few full-time members of staff in low-rent Milton Keynes.

Woodhead believes the private school market is on the brink of big changes with more for-profit chains emerging. But a free market approach, he believes, can only be positive. “The better the education we offer, the more popular our schools will be.”

Woodhead’s words On teachers: “If new teachers cannot master the basics, maybe we should worry about their competence to teach at all.”

On Tony Blair: “He really impressed me. I thought [he] wasn’t just going to talk about change. Instead there has been . . . one wacky initiative after another.”

On Prince Charles: “He wanted me to stay as Chief Inspector . . . arguing for the traditional education that we both think is so important.”

On his critics: “Much of the criticism . . . was from people I didn’t respect . . . so it didn’t bother me.”

On his relationship with a former pupil he said such relationships could be “experiential and educative”. He claims he was misquoted and was referring to the benefits of making mistakes.

On his own record: “He did what he was meant to do and shook up the system. Eight out of 10.”

The Scottish Herald
12th April 2005