Sir Chris Woodhead bids farewell

25 Aug

Sir Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, died at the age of 68 on 23 June 2015, nine years after being diagnosed with motor neuron disease.

He was the first chief of Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) when it was created in 1994 and reigned supreme until 2000, resigning after a series of rows with Mr David Blunkett, the then education secretary.  Sir Chris was a bluntly spoken, controversial figure, remaining active in the education world as chair of Cognita, which runs schools in seven countries.  He resigned in 2013 because of his deteriorating physical condition.

An ex-student of Wallington Grammar School in Surrey, Sir Chris started his teaching career at Priory School in Shrewsbury, Shropshire (1969-72).   He became deputy head of English at Newent School, Gloucester (1972-74), and then head of English Gordano School, Bristol (1974-76). He switched to training teachers at Oxford University (1976-82) and followed this up by taking an advisory post in Shropshire (1982-88) before being appointed deputy chief education officer in Devon (1988-1990) and then deputy chief officer in Cornwall (1990-91).   When the National Curriculum Council (NCC) was established, he was appointed its deputy chief executive in 1991 and chief executive in 1991 for the next two years.    He continued in the same role when the NCC morphed into the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (1993-94).

Sir Chris had fierce clashes with teaching unions during his tenure as chief inspector. He infuriated them by saying that 15,000 teachers were incompetent. He became renowned for supporting traditional teaching methods and said that he was paid to challenge mediocrity, failure and complacency.

After resigning from Ofsted he said opportunities had been missed because of the focus on the “many initiatives in schools, the vast majority of them in my view untested, often fanciful, at best distracting teachers from their proper job”. He added: “I couldn’t stomach what I saw as a proliferation of untried initiatives, a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

In his post-Ofsted days, he became a columnist for The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Times, where he freely dispensed advice to parents, the most recent of which was published on Sunday.

He wrote two books on education and was appointed visiting professor at the University of Buckingham, the sole private university in the UK, where he helped Anthony O’Hear, editor of the journal, Philosophy, to establish an education department.   His public persona appeared to be in sharp contrast to how he behaved privately.   In public, he tended to get up people’s (especially the educational establishment’s) noses but a friend and colleague said that privately he was warm and generous.

In 2011, Woodhead was knighted, which greatly cheered him at a time when his (motor neurone) disease was advancing.

In 2014, he discovered he had colon cancer which had spread to his liver. A campaigner for a change in the law on assisted dying, he said that when he was diagnosed with cancer he considered starving himself to death, but added: “You get used to it. My reaction when I was told about the motor neurone disease was fatalistic. This is the pack of cards I’ve been dealt. I’ve got to play them as best I can.”

Previously “doctors realised that there could come a point in somebody’s life that somebody who was terminally ill – where the pain and suffering was too great and the thing that the doctor should do would be to ease the passage from life to death”, he commented, speaking before the first reading of Lord Falconer’s assisted dying bill.

The motor neurone disease left the former, keen rock climber a quadriplegic in need of constant care from his second wife, Christine. He said that, even then, life had plenty of value and importance for him but that that would end if he lost the power to speak or breathe unaided, both common stages of the disease.

Sir Chris said that he, his wife and daughter would “all recognise the line has been crossed” when his suffering became too great, and know that the time had come for him to end his life.  He would love to be pushed off a cliff in his wheelchair at that point, he hinted.  Later, he considered travelling to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end his life.

Prime Minister David Cameron said: “Chris Woodhead started a crucial debate on school standards and reform. Meetings with him were never dull. My thoughts are with his family.”

Former chief inspector of schools: Sir Chris Woodhead had motor neurone disease



One Response to “Sir Chris Woodhead bids farewell”

  1. wiljaxon December 30, 2017 at 11:52 am #

    Chris Woodhead’s fundamental belief that a child’s educability is determined genetically was eugenicist nonsense. It is also, sadly, ground for the all-too-common belief in ‘fixed innate ability’ around which English state education (leave aside the independent sector) continues to be structured.

    His disdain for the work of academics in the field of education (not only Robin Alexander, but figures such as Donald McIntyre, Joan Ruddock, Brian Simon, Stephen Ball, Lawrence Stenhouse and Vivian Paley) who have engaged in properly-complex ways with educational issues, solely for self-aggrandisement was utterly contemptible.

    There’s a scathing review of the late Mr Woodhead’s book “Class War” here:

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