Like Ulysses in the land of the lotus-eaters, Sir Chris Woodhead awoke the educational establishment from a comforting but destructive dream
A few weeks ago I was writing here about Michael Gove’s battles with the “blob”, the word, Chris Woodhead had famously used to describe the educational establishment at its most amorphously defensive. If anyone ever showed the bloody-minded determination to poke awake the “mild-eyed Lotus-eaters” lost in their comforting dreams of a comprehensive school panacea, it was Sir Chris Woodhead himself.
Many find it hard to admit, but his tough-minded and often confrontational tenure as chief inspector of schools in the 1990s undoubtedly marked the beginning of a slow, agonised process of school reform. Labour’s David Blunkett wrote this week that it is thanks to Chris Woodhead that we can at last appreciate “just how many children were let down by the benign tolerance of the intolerable” in the education system of the seventies and eighties.
I attended my comprehensive school in those years, and although I owe my school a great deal in many ways, I recognise Blunkett’s description. Schools that began as well-intentioned models of fairness and new teaching methods fell – strangely quickly – into generalised mediocrity or worse. My Birmingham school was a flagship of the comprehensive movement, newly built when I started there in 1970, proud of its two sports halls, swimming pool, and state of the art design workshops. Mixed ability sets and a huge breadth of intake meant that the children of academics and doctors shared classes with the children of serving prisoners. Dynamic English and history teachers with mutton-chop whiskers and a passion for the new world order invented fun and exciting projects that really did bring us all together and enthused us with a curiosity for learning, and the industrial past of our city.
By the time I left in 1977, everything seemed to have changed. Most of its best teachers had moved elsewhere, and its founding headmistress had retired. It was she who, by sheer willpower and unquestioning belief in the comprehensive ideal, gave the school its temporary ability to defy gravity. Within twenty years my school was in special measures; within thirty it had been demolished.
Sir Chris’s rhetoric was unyielding, often provocative, but perhaps this was the only way to ensure that the monotonous platitudes of the old educational establishment turned into some form of dialectic. His fierce disdain for the old shibboleths could seem to be mere coat-trailing, but it served an invaluable function: he forced a debate where before there had been a dismal conformity.