Geography Is Now a Pamphlet for Greenpeace, History Is about How to Become a Historian. They Call It 'Learnacy'. I Call It Lunacy; Man of Many Initiatives: Schools Secretary Ed Balls Visiting Wentworth Primary School in Dartford Learning Curve: Chris Woodhead Now Chairs Private Education Company Cognita, Which Has Spent [Pounds Sterling]200 Million Buying 46 Schools

The Evening Standard (London, England), June 10, 2008 | Go to article overview

Geography Is Now a Pamphlet for Greenpeace, History Is about How to Become a Historian. They Call It 'Learnacy'. I Call It Lunacy; Man of Many Initiatives: Schools Secretary Ed Balls Visiting Wentworth Primary School in Dartford Learning Curve: Chris Woodhead Now Chairs Private Education Company Cognita, Which Has Spent [Pounds Sterling]200 Million Buying 46 Schools


Byline: DAVID COHEN

ANOTHER month, another Government initiative to raise standards inschools.

One man who won't be clapping the Secretary of State for Schools on the backtoday is Chris Woodhead, the former Chief Inspector of Schools, perpetual thornin the side of the education establishment and one of the most trenchantcritics of New Labour's record in the classroom.

His crusade is cultural, not just managerial.

So as Ed Balls introduces new plans to turn around our worst-performingsecondary schoolsgiving them six weeks to come up with an "action plan" then closing them afterthree years if they fail to deliver and replacing them with privately runacademies Woodhead is far from satisfied.

"The problem is that the Government has dumbed down the national curriculum,"he says. "Geography has become an ecology pamphlet for Greenpeace but nobodyknows where places are, and history is about learning how to be a historianrather than what actually happened.

They call it "learnacy"learning how to learn. I call it lunacy." New Labour would reply that it isfinally applying strong medicine to failing schoolsforcing them to become academies if they cannot turn themselves around.Woodhead, however, does not believe academiesnow the favoured solution for both Labour and the Toriesare the answer to underperforming state schools.

"Billions have been wasted on the academies programme. Asking Norman Foster todesign a building will not make it a good school. I'd have preferred to investthe money in teacher training and spread our investment over a wider group ofinner-city schools. The problem is that the Government gives failing schoolsmore money when it should be rewarding success." Woodhead long ago becamedisillusioned with Tony Blairand he hasn't changed his mind about his successors.

He says Gordon Brown and Ed Balls have been disappointing. "They are too afraidto abandon the Blair legacy, even though the rumour from Whitehall is that theydon't believe academies work." State schools have, he says bluntly,"comprehensively failed children in 21st-century Britain".

As head of the education watchdog Ofsted in the Nineties, Woodhead railedagainst progressive teaching and its emphasis on "self-discovery" instead oftraditional front-of-class teaching. He announced that 15,000 teachers wereincompetent and instantly became loathed by the National Union of Teachers.

He received hate mail and opened envelopes to find razor blades within.

Eight years on from Ofsted, Woodhead, 62, now puts his money where his mouthis. Cognita, the company he chairs, backed by private equity firm Englefield,has spent [pounds sterling]200 million buying private schools which it runs like businesses.The company has 46 schools, 21 in London, and has become the biggest for-profitprovider of independent schools in Europe.

Woodhead, who grew up in Croydon, the son of a lollipop lady and the first inhis family to go to university, has built his empire in just four years on thepremise that "middle-class parents will pay for something better".

Cognita schools are not Westminsters or St Paul's but mid-ranking,non-academically selective schools. They may lack state-of-the-art theatres andsports facilities but average annual fees of [pounds sterling]8,500 are a third those of mosttop London private schools and they are likely to get your child into one ofthe Russell Group of leading universities.

But did he voluntarily resign from Ofsted in 2000 or was heas word has itpushed? "David Blunkett was quite clear he wanted me to stay but I could nolonger stand on a public platform and support Tony Blair," he says, meeting meat the Hampstead site of the South Bank International School, one of his 2007acquisitions. "What they were doing was a profligate waste of public money. Inthe past 10 years Labour has spent [pounds sterling]1 billion to stop kids bunking off buttruancy today is worse than ever. …

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Geography Is Now a Pamphlet for Greenpeace, History Is about How to Become a Historian. They Call It 'Learnacy'. I Call It Lunacy; Man of Many Initiatives: Schools Secretary Ed Balls Visiting Wentworth Primary School in Dartford Learning Curve: Chris Woodhead Now Chairs Private Education Company Cognita, Which Has Spent [Pounds Sterling]200 Million Buying 46 Schools
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