CLASS WAR: THE STATE OF BRITISH EDUCATION
Little, Brown, pounds 14.99, 212pp
This is a book that belongs to the history of publicity, not of educational thought. It puts me keenly in mind of a paragraph in the novelist Storm Jameson's autobiography: "I watched with amazement and misgiving the hand-over-fist climb of an ambitious young man... a clever office-soldier with a great deal of charm... capable in good faith of arranging to advance himself at the expense of less adroit colleagues by any means except violent ones. He was not vain, not unscrupulous in anything except the turning-points of his career."
Chris Woodhead so advanced himself that he became the first of Her Majesty's chief inspectors to attain the doubtful reward of national celebrity. It would be hard to find a post for which the curious mixture of his qualities - his deliberate, sometimes endearing recklessness, his powerful charm, his brutality and insolence, his executive incisiveness - were less suited.
This is the senior figure in local authorities who made clear his opinion of colleagues by attending their meetings with his feet up on the committee table; whose contract with the Associated Examining Board as a coursework moderator was not renewed after he had failed to notify the Board when he moved address and, as a result, important correspondence had been neglected; who boasted to a colleague, after getting a job training teachers at the University of Oxford, that he "never marked kids' work". This is the national custodian of the intellectual virtues who, while deputy to Duncan Graham at the National Curriculum Council at York, sloped off to London to press his suit with the Baroness Blatch and her specialist aide, the head of Dixons, so that together they duly appointed the honest go-getter to his grand office.
Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's famously progressive (and New Labour) chief education officer, tells the tale of how - once in that office - Woodhead radically adjusted an otherwise-benign report on his authority. When Woodhead's staff, leaking like a urinal, ensured that Brighouse saw an early draft as well as the published report, the Chief Inspector swore detailed vengeance on his colleagues - without ever catching the culprits.
Tom Wylie, a senior HMI who left the inspectorate while the going was good, remarked of Woodhead that "he holds no opinions that would be out of place in the bar of the Wokingham Golf Club". The work in hand bears this richly out. It is commended by the publishers as "the book every parent should read", but there is nothing here they have not already heard Woodhead say in the columns of the Tory- favouring press so briefly hospitable to him.
Woodhead boasted to a colleague, at the change of government in 1997, "They daren't sack me. If they did, it would show they were soft on standards." But his opening chapter on "Standards" disgraces the standards we should expect from such a voice: those of careful argument, due authority, detailed evidence, deliberative judgement and decent prose.
He calls for standards, but provides no index. He quotes (and misnames) the respected American commentator E D Hirsch on cultural literacy, but is himself unlettered. His notes (there is no bibliography) contain 44 mostly unpaginated references, almost all newspaper articles. Mine is not a crabbed, scholastic objection. There is absolutely no sense, in this boring yet outrageous book, of any interest in the life of the mind that Woodhead was paid pounds 115,000 a year to uphold. …