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Barry Sheerman, Education Select Committee chairman
"We have an unseemly row at the moment"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 1 November, 2000, 13:30 GMT
Woodhead spars with MPs
Chris Woodhead in select ctte.
Chris Woodhead: Unabashed
Chris Woodhead was in fighting form on what turned out to be his last official engagement before the news that he was resigning as England's chief schools inspector, when he clashed with MPs over his style and his public "forays" into areas that are not part of his job.

During "robust" exchanges in the Commons education select committee, Mr Woodhead was rebuked by the chairman, Barry Sheerman, for being "offensive" to another member of the committee.

Barry Sheerman
Barry Sheerman: "Question of style and substance"
Mr Woodhead rejected the suggestion that the inspectorate he heads, Ofsted, needed a board to oversee its work and make it more accountable.

Mr Sheerman said the Ofsted system of inspecting schools was regarded as making a major contribution to the quality of education.

But he said there was a difference between the reality of Ofsted's work and what people perceived to be the opinions of the chief inspector.

There perhaps ought to be more attention paid to that "public relations" aspect of its work.

"You are quite well known for making forays into territory for which you don't have responsibility," Mr Sheerman said - such as talking about A-levels needing to be more difficult, or "vacuous" degrees.

"There is a feeling that those forays sometimes detract from the overall work of Ofsted."

'Not vindictive'

Chris Woodhead responded by complaining about a radio interview in which Mr Sheerman had referred to Ofsted being seen as a sort of "witchfinder general, stomping up and down the country".

He said it was difficult when Ofsted had to counter "wild and unsubstantiated allegations" about the way its inspectors operated.

"It doesn't help when myths are perpetrated by whoever about the nature of inspection, how it is vindictive, sadistic...

"The reality is not like that and head teachers do not see it in that way."

He was keen to celebrate success in schools, but rejected any argument that Ofsted should not speak bluntly when things were wrong.

Mr Sheerman said there was a difference between blunt speaking, and language in some of Mr Woodhead's correspondence with other public officials which fell short of what was expected - language "interpreted by many people as being offensive".

Members of the committee had been shocked by the way Mr Woodhead had answered their questions the last time he had appeared before them, he added.

Not easy - but not hard enough

At one point in the often ill-tempered session, Liberal Democrat Evan Harris asked Mr Woodhead about his remarks in an interview that A-level exams were too easy.

Mr Woodhead said he had not said they were too easy, but that they did need to be made more difficult.

Otherwise, the drive to raise standards in schools could be affected as the difficulty of exams had a "profound influence on what happens in classrooms and one of their prime purposes is discriminating between students," he said.

evan harris
Evan Harris: Difficulty with concept
He was also concerned about the value of modular courses as opposed to the traditional variety, with examinations at the end.

They made it "more difficult to have the wide generality of reading that characterises successful A-level courses", he told the committee.

He also found it "very worrying" that there were model essays available on the net that students could use.

Dr Harris said he could not understand the difference between A-levels not being too easy, and needing to be more difficult.

"I'm sorry if you find it difficult to hold those two propositions in your head but I don't think it's that hard really," Mr Woodhead told him.

The chairman, Barry Sheerman, said he found it offensive that Mr Woodhead should make such a comment about the mental ability of a member of his committee, who had an Oxford medical degree.

It was just such "flip remarks" he had meant when talking about Ofsted's style and substance, he said.

Accountability

Tory MP Stephen O'Brien wondered whether bi-annual appearances before the select committee was an adequate system of accountability.

Mr Woodhead said that as the non-ministerial head of a government department he was responsible to the prime minister.

Mr O'Brien said the question was, what were the committee's sanctions against Mr Woodhead if it thought he had done wrong.

He said it was struggling to understand - at which point Mr Woodhead jokingly finished the sentence for him - "the monster that Parliament has created. Frankenstein's monster."

He did not see the need to set up a board to oversee Ofsted's work.

The reality was that if there was enough of a "general public stink" about anything he did he would be sacked.

Racism report

Among other concerns MPs raised with Mr Woodhead was the row between Ofsted and the Commission for Racial Equality following a CRE report which accused school inspectors of failing to identify the effects of racism.

The committee encouraged Mr Woodhead to have a dialogue with the CRE.

Mr Woodhead attacked the CRE report as being based on slender evidence, but acknowledged he had refused to meet the researchers during their four-month investigation as he had been "too busy".

Mr Sheerman said: "I don't think that was good enough in terms of the standards in public life that I've been used to."

Mr Woodhead replied: "Right. I hear what you say."

And he clashed with Gordon Marsden over his earlier comment that some degree courses - he singled out media studies - were "vacuous".

He said he was to meet a number of university vice-chancellors next week to discuss his concerns, which he stood by.

But Mr Marsden said: "I do think that vacuous comment is as bad as vacuous degress."

And Mr Sheerman observed that Ofsted had not made any contribution to its ongoing inquiry into higher education.

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See also:

14 Aug 00 | Education
Woodhead defends degree criticisms
04 Sep 00 | Education
Woodhead wants harder A-levels
19 Jul 00 | Education
Ofsted 'failure' over school racism
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