The Woodhead Affair
(This is an extract from my autobiography Comprehensive View)
I had known Chris Woodhead since 1982, when he was an English adviser and I was a deputy head. We were roughly contemporary, although while I did eight years as a head of department, he did three and then moved into teacher training. And that was to be the pattern of the future; he moved on, and up, while I stayed where I was. Psychologically, that suited us both. He was always restless, a fast, impatient driver who would take risks rather than wait behind someone who wanted to go slow. I liked getting the most out of a job, seeing the benefits that come from following it through, staying in one place for some time.
Woodhead achieved notoriety when he became Chief Inspector of Schools in 1994. Prior to his arrival OFSTED had been a sober, verging on anonymous, professional body. He turned it into a one-man power base from which to provide controversial criticisms of the education system, and attracted reams of publicity as a result.
The main reaction in Shropshire was surprise. He had been flexible, ambitious and decisive, but there had been nothing to mark him out as distinctively able. There had been English advisers who had done more with the job, worked more closely with teachers, left more solid achievements behind. Woodhead’s admirers felt that he had attracted talent from outside the county, and cut through difficult staffing problems, but there was nothing to suggest that this was an educational guru in the making.
For the Tory coup, Woodhead was ideal. He spoke the language. When you take over the colony, you need a tame native, to tell everyone else that this is a good thing. When the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, they claimed they had been invited. When the Tories said that English teaching in the sixties got carried away and left the basics behind, Woodhead was there as exhibit A, the trendy English teacher who now saw the error of his ways.
Part of the Tory war on English teaching involved dismantling an agreed framework. Joan Clanchy, head of an independent school, resigned from the National Curriculum Council, saying:
“I do not think that a quango of ‘plain’ men and women with a team of three professional officers whose advice was often ignored was the right body to rewrite their work…I did object to a council member only being given Centre for Policy studies pamphlets to read by way of homework.”
That’s her complaint – lack of professional expertise, and the presence of right-wing bias. But this was Woodhead’s comment on the row: “We simply recognise that creativity and self-expression depend upon the mastery of critically important basic skills.”
That “simply” is deadly. It suggests that we are dealing here with an obvious truth, nothing to get worked up about. Kids ought to be using full stops. But Clanchy knew that very well. Her protest was not about the balance of teaching method, but the nature of a political coup. So Woodhead, persuasive and fluent in the lingo, is drafted in to provide camouflage. Peter Wilby, a Times journalist, defined Woodhead’s distinctive talent:
“This is a man who will always get a better press than he deserves for the simple reason that he provides good copy. He speaks in short, quotable sentences, at dictation speed; he does not care whom he offends; and he never uses jargon. Education journalists, in my experience, will find someone like that in a prominent position no more than once in ten years.”
When Woodhead claimed that there were 15,000 incompetent teachers, that was headline news. He hadn’t done any research on which to base that claim, and when the Prime Minister asked OFSTED to check it, the numbers turned out to be much lower. Woodhead argued that inspectors had chickened out of naming names. And when detailed, thorough research was done into how many incompetent teachers there were, and how they might be helped, it was Ted Wragg rather than Woodhead who carried it out.
In February ’92 he briefly came back to Shropshire, and I went to his talk. He acknowledged that Shropshire was a good authority, but thought that fact might have clouded our judgement, for in his opinion other authorities were nothing like so good. There was a wide dissatisfaction among parents, impatience about the quality of education their children were receiving….And then I thought, hang on a minute. How many parents does Chris Woodhead see in a day? How many do I see? He may well have an overview of the national picture which I lack, but so far as first-hand knowledge of parental attitudes is concerned, I know more than he does. I know there are particular worries, but there isn’t this blanket rage that he’s describing and there is also a lot of recognition for the work we do.
Woodhead’s ideal state was not an educational world where everybody did exactly as he prescribed; he was happiest as the lonely prophet, saying how the rest of us had got it wrong. Teachers’ resentment of him was not simply a response to criticism; all the best teachers I’ve known have been self-critical, and ready to improve their performance through analysis. What irritated teachers about Woodhead was the knowledge that although he knew education at first hand, he preferred to deal with soundbites and simplifications, talking tough for the tabloids, peddling malice in wonderland.
His role was to stimulate. Find the issue, get the headline, raise the question – and move on. For many, this was enough. In The Observer, Melanie Phillips wrote a full-length parody of Swift, in which education is compared with health. Children are ill, but
be cured of their diseases. Everyone should be equally ill…One third of patients were being killed by their physicians."
The Chief Inspector called for 15,000 physicians to be sacked, to replace the practice of medicine in its formerly noble position in society and restore the nation to health.
“…Unfortunately, the Chief Inspector took care to remain in perfect condition, being one of the few left who understood the difference between health and disease…the Chief Inspector was singled out for ritual slaughter…the Chief Inspector still refused to renounce health and embrace disease…I noticed what appeared to be a greyish cauliflower stuck on a pole outside the House of Commons. Inquiring of an excited bystander what this might be, I was chilled to the marrow by his reply. It was the Chief Inspector’s brain.”
It’s certainly original. Chris Woodhead as a Jesus figure, the sole martyr for truth in a deceitful world. It took some getting used to, especially if you’d ever been with him to a pub. I wondered what it was that excited this passionate admiration, and then I heard that he had attended the book launch for Phillips’ All Must Have Prizes. That gave me an idea, which ended up as an article in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) :
“I didn’t believe it at first. There was the usual staffroom gossip, but I always try to ignore that. I noticed the graffiti by the bike sheds ‘Mel 4 Chris’ but thought nothing of it. Then I saw it, with my own eyes; they were there last Thursday, sitting together for the cameras. Journalist Melanie Phillips and Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead are definitely an item.”
The core of the piece argued that they were united by their insistence on isolating themselves as critical individuals with a unique insight, impatient of any other people’s views or of the need for collaboration. They were offering the Lone Ranger as hero, and that was unhelpful because it simplified the issues.
Melanie Phillips had the right of reply the following week, and she hadn’t liked what she read. She particularly objected to the jokey introduction to my article “which plumbed the depths of deranged and offensive fantasy.” My second paragraph had made it clear that I wasn’t interested in the sexual angle - “Nothing romantic, you understand”. In that area Phillips and I are both near the puritan end of the spectrum, though she might find that hard to believe.
She was angered by the implication that her book relied on Woodhead. I had never alleged that, and was suggesting a similarity of approach rather than any direct borrowing. “It would appear that my crime is ever to have written anything complimentary about the chief inspector”, Phillips protested, without acknowledging the intensity of her idealised portrait: “one of the few left who understood the difference between health and disease…”
I felt she was dodging the basic charge about sweeping criticism and inadequate solutions. She felt I was busily building a demonology to deflect attention from the real evidence, perhaps because I was working out some grudge. What she meant by that I still have no idea.
I wasn’t unhappy, because I thought her attack entitled me to some reply, but the man at the TES wasn’t so sure. “You’ve had a go. She’s had a go. It could go on for ever.” Articles filled up a lot of space and had to be paid for. But if I sent him a short letter, he’d see. How long was short? We settled for 500 words, and I started scribbling furiously:
“The title of Melanie Phillips’ article ‘Goodbye debate, hello malice’ – implies that she’s the debate and I’m the malice. I am ‘in flight from reason’, and the voice of reason sounds like this: ‘deranged and offensive fantasy …unsavoury… diabolical… irrational reaction…working out some grudge.’ If that’s Ms. Phillips in rational mode, I’d hate to meet her when she’s mad.”
I then stressed that my main concern was for the quality of discussion: “I think Ms. Phillips is suggesting that most people in education are stupid and obstructive. I think she also suggests that Chris Woodhead has unique insights into educational failure. I don’t think either of those views contribute constructively to the process of educational debate.”
As the man from the TES had probably hoped, Melanie Phillips wasn’t interested in sending a letter of her own, so this brief skirmish was over.
The Woodhead saga, meanwhile, ran and ran. I continued to follow his story after I retired in July 1998, and in the spring of 1999 my cuttings file began to bulge. It was a tribute to Woodhead’s powers of persuasion that Tony Blair retained him as one of the few features of continuity from the previous administration. “A new dawn, is it not?” , but in education politics it was business as usual.
Except that the Teflon smoothie seemed to have come unstuck. In one of his characteristic flirtations with disaster, Woodhead told a conference in Exeter that he thought there could be something “educative and experiential” about affairs between pupils and teachers. He had first-hand experience, having disrupted an Arvon course in September 1975 by having an open affair with one of his students, Amanda Johnston, to the exasperation of the writer in residence, Angela Carter. In September 1976, Cathy Woodhead had gone to see a solicitor to discuss a divorce.
This story had first surfaced in the News of the World in 1995. To save his job, Woodhead and Amanda Johnston signed an affidavit swearing that their affair only started in December 1976, after she had left school. To protect their daughter from harmful publicity, Cathy Woodhead stayed silent, and ex-colleagues of Woodhead’s who knew the truth were threatened with legal action. However, his fresh statement in March 1999 provoked Cathy Woodhead into revealing the truth, and her account was rapidly supported by a dozen witnesses. No-one supported Woodhead’s account. This wasn’t a wrangle about a long-gone historical dispute. The Woodhead-Johnston affidavit was the assurance on which his retention by New Labour was based, and conspiracy to sign a false affidavit was a serious crime, with life imprisonment as the maximum sentence.
The papers became increasingly frenzied, although the government showed no interest in investigating whether or not Woodhead had lied. The National Association of Head Teachers asked the police if Woodhead had committed a crime by swearing to an affidavit whose main assertion was now known to be false. Tony Blair had been ruthless in shedding from government figures who trailed scandal in their wake, but yet again Woodhead was to be the exception. “A close government apologist” told Libby Purves: “Look, we can’t afford to let something like this bring down Woodhead. He’s the only hope for education in this country.”
Lots of us gulped when we read that. I raised it with a Labour MP, who made all kinds of distancing noises about quotes and reliability, but when I asked if he was saying that Libby Purves made it up he speedily backtracked. Within the lunatic atmosphere of the time, it made a kind of sense. Blair and Woodhead were very similar – impatient, busy men who couldn’t hang around waiting for others to get the point. See the problem, get it solved, and then move on.
I produced an A5 booklet, Woodhead on the Block?, which was featured in Nick Cohen’s Observer column, so I had people ringing the same day to order copies, including Cathy Woodhead. The booklet outlined Woodhead’s educational career, analysed his approach to the business of educational debate, and queried whether he was in fact so indispensable to the cause of educational progress. I sent him a copy and offered him reassuring noises about the pleasures of retirement, but he didn’t take the hint.
I did get a call from Channel 4 News, which gave me a hectic day. Could I get down to London, today? Well, yes, I could if I could pinch the car off Linda, who was teaching at our local school, drive to the station, take a train and a taxi, and then do all that in reverse. The man from Channel 4 talked to me on the phone about my booklet, promised to pay all my travel costs, and I was on my way.
In the taxi that took me to the studio, the radio was reporting the latest on the Woodhead story. If ever there was a chance to affect the course of history, this was it. I wasn’t going to break any laws, but surely I knew the material well enough to make some damaging points. The way Woodhead had abused his position to make personal points, the lack of OFSTED evidence for the 15,000 incompetents claim, the fact that Cathy Woodhead was looking for a divorce three months before Woodhead said the affair had started…
After the usual waiting around, I was led to a subterranean cell, where there was a hardened cameraman who had just got back from Bosnia. This veteran pointed his lens as I rattled through the case against Woodhead, remembering snatches from the radio, bits from my booklet, reasons why Labour would be better off letting him go.
Then there was the long journey back, to catch up with my videoed moment of fame. I needn’t have bothered. They weren’t interested in me, or my booklet. The story they wanted was about Labour Party teachers who had created a conspiracy to ‘get’ Woodhead. I wasn’t part of it, nothing I said substantiated it, so from my ten minutes of blistering polemic they included one anodyne sentence, which they could have got from someone in the street. Was my journey really necessary? No, but I’d read enough reports of shafting by media not to be surprised.
And then it all went quiet. The Observer, which had made the running with increasingly full coverage of the story, completely let it go. For nearly six months there was nothing on the Woodhead story, no revelations of progress with enquiries, no guesses about how things might turn out. A television crew had been working on a documentary about Cathy Woodhead, but suddenly decided that it might not be a good idea.
As a nosey ex-teacher with time on my hands, I rang Scotland Yard in November 1999 to find out. I was referred to the Organised Crime Group, who told me that enquiries were ongoing. When I asked them to speculate about the timing of a possible decision, I was offered the cheery reassurance that “It could take years.”
Next day, the TES had a small report saying that the Director of Public Prosecutions had decided that there was no case to answer. I wrote to ask exactly when this had been decided, and was told that “the CPS was never presented with a file in relation to any allegations against Mr. Chris Woodhead and the decision not to proceed with any criminal proceedings was not taken by us.”
I wrote to the police, asking when the decision had been taken, and eventually was told “In October 1999, following our receipt of written advice in connection with the matter from the CPS.” And yet, a month later, I had been told that investigations were continuing and a conclusion was not in sight.
Having been assured that the decision “has of course been communicated to the relevant parties” I thought I would try David Hart, of the NAHT. “I am not at liberty to comment on the Chris Woodhead enquiry,” he said. “but I have a letter from the police saying –” I began. “I am not at liberty…”
It was like Edge of Darkness. There is a cover up, but part of the cover-up is that nobody must say there is a cover up. By an accident of timing, I had a series of statements and dates which didn’t add up. A national story had been pursued by the media, and then suddenly buried. Everybody knew, nothing was published, and nobody seemed to mind.
I minded a lot. I wrote letters in every direction, to the sort of papers and figures who had a reputation for fearless enquiry and finding out the truth. At the time the BBC were running macho adverts bragging about their independence: “It’s about standards, it’s about communicating…Honesty, Integrity. That’s what the BBC stands for…As a journalist, all you’ve got is credibility. If you haven’t got that, then you’re lost.” I wrote to them, and Jeremy Paxman, and Mark Thomas, and Panorama, and Nick Cohen. I detailed what I knew, and asked if they could help, either in filling in the gaps in the Woodhead story, or in accounting for their own failure to pursue it. The only response I got was from Paul Foot, who wrote a clear, telling piece for Private Eye. And that got no response either.
Although after that article appeared I did get a second letter from the CPS, correcting the first. “In my letter to you of 5 January, I told you that the Crown Prosecution Service had never received a file in relation to Mr. Chris Woodhead and that the decision taken not to prosecute him was not taken by the Crown Prosecution Service. I have now been advised otherwise.”
Curiouser and curiouser. But how had they decided, and how closely had they looked? In the end, characteristically, it was Woodhead who spilt the beans. In a long interview he revealed that although the NAHT had provided evidence which suggested that a serious crime had been committed “there was no inquiry, no suspension, no police interview or any attempt to examine evidence that he had lied on oath.”
There were two big mysteries. (1) What had happened to the inquiry? Well, it didn’t happen. There was uncertainty about who had looked at what, and when any decision had been taken, but that wasn’t necessarily corrupt. Maybe it was cock-up rather than conspiracy, but that didn’t make sense when you look at the second question. (2) Why wasn’t it reported?
Not only was Chris Woodhead protected, but considerable effort went into making sure that we didn’t know he was being protected. In March 1999 many papers were confidently predicting his resignation. But during the summer there were no pieces speculating about how the police enquiry was going, and when it was finally, unobtrusively revealed in the TES that there would be no prosecution, no other papers reported the fact. David Hart had done nothing wrong; his union had made a reasonable enquiry about a matter of public interest, but months after that had been resolved he was still not free to discuss it.
The only solution which makes sense is the explanation that I was offered by a journalist – “this government is very good at twisting arms.” I had this poopoohed by other journalists: “You think they’ve muzzled Nick Cohen? Don’t be ridiculous.” But what else would explain the dramatic reversal of The Observer’s stance? Who else would have the power to kill an NAHT application to the police, and then to make sure that neither the police nor the NAHT said anything further? Whoever was in charge, the final chapter of the Woodhead affair got thoroughly buried, spun away and out of sight, tightly wrapped by the spiders of oblivion.