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EDITIONS
Friday, 3 May, 2002, 23:40 GMT 00:40 UK
New inspector plays a straight bat
children dancing round maypole
Ofsted's new boss spent May Day at an Essex primary

Fans of Ronnie Barker's prison-based television series Porridge might recall the straight-backed, tough, Scottish head prison officer, Mr Mackay.

He represented authority and his task in life was to stop the inmates bending the rules.

Well, I hope he won't mind me saying this, but the new chief inspector of schools at Ofsted reminds me of Mr Mackay.

Fulton Mackay as Mr Mackay
Fulton Mackay as Mr Mackay: Nobody's fool
It is partly the severe haircut, the erect bearing and the Glaswegian accent. But it is also the sense of inner toughness and self-control.

I think it might also have something to do with the new chief inspector's interest in Scottish country dancing, although I must be honest and admit I don't know for sure that the fictional Mr Mackay is an aficionado of this healthy and upright activity, although I like to think he is.

David Bell took over as head of the education inspectorate this week from Mike Tomlinson.

Being chief inspector of schools is a potentially very influential job. You can highlight problems, lobby for change, upset teachers and infuriate governments.

Scottish roots

If your name is Chris Woodhead, the best known of all former chief inspectors, you can do all of these at once. Rarely has there been a single person capable of arousing such hostility from the majority of teachers and such ardent admiration from a much smaller band of supporters.


Asked what English schools could learn from Scotland, he laughed and quickly evaded the issue

So there is bound to be much interest, and not a little apprehension, out there in school land at the appointment of a new chief inspector.

So what sort of a man is he?

He is an unusual choice in many ways. Most obviously, he is a Scot who is now the chief inspector for schools in England.

Asked what English schools could learn from Scotland, he laughed and quickly evaded the issue.

Career path

He is also slightly unusual in that he began as a primary school teacher. Indeed he has never taught in secondary schools, having moved after six years from teaching into local education authority administration.


My style is David Bell style - I'm not Chris Woodhead, I'm not Mike Tomlinson

David Bell

Another variant from the usual career path for this post is that he has never been a school inspector and his most recent job, as chief executive of Bedfordshire County Council, was not directly in education.

When his appointment was announced there was speculation that he was very much in the New Labour mould - someone with whom ministers would find it easy to work. So when I talked with him for an hour this week one of my first questions was whether this was true.

Choosing his words with care, he said he had found this aspect of the press coverage "quite curious" as for the past two years he had worked for a Conservative-controlled council.

He added that "you would never find anyone who would say I have done anything in my local government career for party political reasons".

Own man

This was to be the style of his interview: easygoing and pleasant but playing the straightest dead bat since Geoffrey Boycott.

David Bell
David Bell: Straight bat
Throughout the innings he gave not a single chance and, while he didn't hit anything to the boundary, he kept himself out of trouble with ease.

So what will be his style as chief inspector?

"My style is David Bell style. I'm not Chris Woodhead. I'm not Mike Tomlinson. I'll do the job the way I think I should do it.

"The cardinal principle is to protect my independence. The responsibility is to speak on the basis of the evidence that Ofsted finds."

Evidence base

Few could argue with that. But the real test will be in the delivery of the chief inspector's verdicts on school performance.


Although he carefully made no comment about Mr Woodhead, Mr Bell is clearly different in temperament and outlook

Ofsted's evidence base is enormous and it gives the person who delivers those findings a particularly strong launch-pad.

But if these verdicts are launched with the dull weight of Her Majesty's Inspectors' institutional language - with all the verve and energy of a speak-your-weight machine - then they will not stimulate the public debate.

Whether you loved or hated Chris Woodhead, you had to concede that his use of spoken and written language ensured his message got across.

Chris Woodhead was not a cautious man. He took risks and this earned him enemies. It also guaranteed he was noticed.

Temperament

Mr Bell seems much more cautious. But if the inner steel which his manner suggests is turned to the benefit of an unbiased advocacy for learning, then he can make an impact on the public debate.

Although he carefully made no comment about Mr Woodhead, Mr Bell is clearly different in temperament and outlook.

He does not see himself as a crusader for educational change but as "a pragmatist" who would rather be known as "someone who keeps a careful eye on the inspection system rather than someone who's gone out of his way to be revolutionary for the sake of revolution".

Dancing

So what else do teachers need to know before the chief inspector comes calling?


He regards the gap between England's best and worst schools as a 'huge issue'

He's the son of a railway man and full-time mother from Glasgow and attended a comprehensive school in the city.

He studied history and philosophy at Glasgow University then took a one-year primary education course at Jordanhill College.

His first three years in primary schools were in Scotland before a further three years in Witham and Thundersley in Essex.

Curiously he learnt his Scottish dancing not in Scotland but in Essex, having just missed being part of the generation of Scottish teachers for whom it was a compulsory module in teacher training. He denies that he will use his new role to get Scottish dancing onto the national curriculum.

American influence

If there is one period in his life which appears to have influenced the shift from able education administrator to the high-flyer who has become chief inspector in his early 40s, it would be his year in the USA on a Harkness Fellowship.

Get him talking about this and his caution falls away and real enthusiasm shows.

David Bell in classroom
Mr Bell began his career in primary schools
His year in the USA was, he says, "a life-enhancing experience". It made him very aware of the huge gap between the best and the worst schools in America.

He regards the gap between England's best and worst schools as a "huge issue" and the most likely obstacle to the raising of standards overall.

It is this issue, one suspects, which might arouse this apparently cautious man to a crusade. For now, though, he is clearly content to tread softly.

If schools want to try to impress him they can put on a Scottish dancing display, hang out the Newcastle United banners (he's supported them since his days as director of education there), or fly the American flag.

But I suspect, like all of old-lag Fletch's attempts to sweeten Mr Mackay, nothing much will work to win special favours from the new chief inspector.

And that, of course, is how it should be.


We welcome your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.

See also:

07 Jan 02 | UK Education
07 Jan 02 | UK Education
24 Jan 02 | UK Education
05 Feb 02 | UK Education
19 Jul 01 | UK Education
02 Nov 00 | UK Education
Internet links:


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