As I was trawling through The Economist audio archive, I came across a rather fascinating interview with Chris Woodhead, the former Chief Inspector of School, presumably to mark the publication of his new book A Desolation of Learning. The lion – it’s the luxuriant curls! – may have lost a few teeth but he can still bite.
It won’t surprise anyone familiar with Chris Woodhead’s views on education that he describes the government’s directives about ‘being healthy, being safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution, achieving economic well-being’ as its ‘vacuous children’s plan’.
He claims that this government has no respect for ‘traditional learning’, which he believes should be about knowing something about the history and literature of this country, maths and science, and he goes on to describe Ofsted these days as ‘an irrelevance’.
None of this is particularly new, a re-rehearsal of the old ‘traditional’ versus ‘progressive’ arguments about the way we educate children, you might think. However, what is particularly interesting in this interview is his criticism of Michael Gove and the Conservative Party’s position, which he regards as being ambivalent – code for can’t quite decide if nailing their colours to the mast is going to lose them votes. While Woodhead readily agrees with the interviewer that he is supportive of some of the Tory policies, such as, for example, introducing synthetic phonics into schools, he insists that the statist solution – imposition from the top – is the wrong way to go.
What he says is that ‘You either plump for market driven solutions… or you plump for the state telling schools what to do… I don’t believe that the machinery of state control should be used to impose ways of teaching and learning even when I personally approve of those particular ways of teaching and learning (my emphasis).’
On the basis of his experiences of local and national government, he further develops this theme by, talking about his increasing scepticism ‘about how state machinery works’. He believes it ‘crushes the spirit out of independent-minded teachers’.
Part of his answer to the problem lies in the introduction of vouchers for every parent, – weighted for children with particular educational disadvantages –, which they can cash in at a state school or go towards payment or part-payment for private school fees. This, he thinks, will drive up standards and push down prices much more efficiently that the top-down solutions pursued by New Labour.
I wouldn’t have bought his book but I felt that the interview took such an engaging turn I went out and got hold of a copy, which I am currently reading. Whatever you think about Chris Woodhead, and the truth is that most people have never actually listened to or read what he’s got to say, the interview is worth a spin. And, if you decide to buy the book, you can get it at Amazon.
Thanks to The Telegraph for the photograph of Chris Woodhead.