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Friday, 9 February, 2001, 23:58 GMT
A new inspector calls
BBC education correspondent Mike Baker considers England's new schools watchdog - and contrasts his first annual report with those of his predecessors.

A new chief schools inspector came knocking on England's school gates this week.

Teachers breathed a sigh of relief and even mustered a small cheer of encouragement.

He may not court publicity but there is some real steel behind his cautious language

The new man, Mike Tomlinson, is unlike his controversial predecessor, Chris Woodhead, who turned the previously semi-anonymous chief inspector's role into the most high profile bully-pulpit in education.

But those who have described Mr Tomlinson as mild and more emollient may have misjudged the impact he could have. He may not court publicity but there is some real steel behind his cautious language.

Chris Woodhead's focus was on teachers and teaching methods. He appeared to regard other issues as a distraction from his crusade.

Mr Tomlinson certainly thinks teaching quality is vital but he is equally concerned with practical factors such as the resources available to schools.

Pointing the finger

This should alarm the government. A chief inspector who highlights the shortage of teachers, the inadequacy of funding and the poor quality of much school accommodation - as he did this week - is putting the spotlight on issues for which the government, not the teaching profession, has responsibility.

Mike Tomlinson
The "civil servant-like" Mr Tomlinson
So while Mr Tomlinson said there was "much to celebrate" in schools he quietly, but ominously, warned that recent progress was "at risk" because of the reliance on temporary teachers, the unevenness of school funding and growing misbehaviour by pupils.

Warnings about staff shortages and under-funding from the teacher unions can be swatted aside as special pleading by ministers; it is not so easy when the warning comes from England's senior inspector.

So watch out for the impact of the apparently grey, civil servant-like Mr Tomlinson.

He will not conjure up dramatic figures such as Chris Woodhead's 15,000 "incompetent teachers". Indeed, in a BBC radio interview he came close to rebutting that figure, describing it as "a statistical interpolation".

Novel idea

Precisely because he will not be cavalier with facts or judgements, his annual reports will be awaited nervously by governments of all political hues.

Under Chris Woodhead we became so familiar with the annual "state of the nation's schools" report that it is hard to remember it is still relatively new.

The idea came from the Tory education secretary, Sir Keith Joseph, as part of his drive to give more information to parents.

The first annual report, on the school year 1987-88, was unlike today's glossy number. It was a mere 75 paragraphs long, on plain A4 sheets roughly stapled together.

In those pre-Ofsted days, it was written by the unnamed, but formidably-titled, Her Majesty's senior chief inspector of schools.

Different language

The man behind that Whitehall-esque title was Eric Bolton but his name did not appear on it, nor did he give on-camera news conferences.

Contrast this with Chris Woodhead's first report, in 1995, which contained a colour photograph of the author and ran to 231 paragraphs inside a glossy green cover.

What is really fascinating, though, is the contrast in language and focus between Eric Bolton's first-ever annual report, Chris Woodhead's debut and the first contribution from Mike Tomlinson.

Most striking is the way certain problems in schools just keep coming round. The headline story from the report on the year 1987-88 was identical to this year.

The top sentence from my story on BBC News then was: "The school system in England could be seriously threatened by a shortage of teachers in key areas, the chief inspector of schools has warned."

Well the report did come out close to the film Groundhog Day.

Obstacles highlighted

That very first report was certainly more "teacher-friendly" than most of those written by Mr Woodhead. It noted that "too many teachers feel that their profession and its work are misjudged and seriously undervalued".

In many respects the Bolton and the Tomlinson reports are similar in tone and language. Both criticise where criticism is deserved but they also highlight the obstacles put in the way of good teaching: resources, teacher numbers, accommodation and social factors beyond the school gate.

Mr Woodhead was a different type altogether, not least because he viewed himself as an "outsider" trying to galvanise what he saw as the complacent and damaging ideologies of the education establishment. His justification was that the message had to be tough and simple if it was to hit home.

He was a masterful essayist with an arresting turn of phrase. This language is muscular, suggesting a certainty of view and a determination to act.

He used adjectives such as "bleak" or "boring" to describe what he saw in schools. His sentences were sprinkled with "musts" and "shoulds".

Running commentary

The annual chief inspector's report is presented as a scientific document, the distillation of thousands of individual school inspections.

Of course, there is a good evidence base, but the annual report is also a commentary which reflects the views and interests of the current post-holder.

Judging by Mr Tomlinson's debut he is more in the old HMI mould than his media-friendly immediate predecessor.

But so long as he speaks his mind, without fear of political reaction, he could yet cause as much of a stir as his immediate predecessor, albeit in a very different way.

BBC News Online plans to host a Forum with Mike Tomlinson in the near future.

Mike Baker welcomes your comments at: although he cannot always answer individual e-mails.

See also:

06 Feb 01 | UK Education
31 Jan 01 | UK Education
01 Dec 00 | UK Education
13 Dec 00 | UK Education
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