The former Chief Inspector of Schools says Birmingham could do more to increase the range of academic diversity on offer to the city’s parents.
Chris Woodhead said too many schools in Birmingham probably fell within the description given by the then Prime Minister’s press spokesman, Alastair Campbell, in 2001, when he coined the phrase ‘bog-standard comprehensives’.
Mr Woodhead was speaking to the Birmingham Post about his new book, entitled A Desolation of Learning: Is this the education our children deserve?
The book provides a critical commentary on education policy, reform initiatives and the state of education today following more than a decade of Labour being in government.
Publication of the book has coincided with the revelation that the former chief of education watchdog Ofsted has been secretly suffering for the last three years with motor neurone disease, a degenerative condition that causes weakness and wasting of muscles, loss of mobility in the limbs, and difficulties with speech, swallowing and breathing.
Mr Woodhead, who is now Professor of Education at the University of Buckingham and chairman of the Cognita Schools Group, said A Desolation of Learning raised issues around selective education, academies, and the failure of government and local authorities to raise standards, all of which were equally relevant in Birmingham as anywhere else.
He acknowledged the range of independent, grammar, single sex, faith and comprehensive schools in Birmingham, but added: “A diverse education is good provided the schools in that system can accommodate all the pupils who apply.
“Can the grammar schools in Birmingham cope with the number of pupils wanting to go there? The answer is no. I would have thought the vast majority are, as Alastair Campbell said, still ‘bog standard comprehensives’.
“Birmingham could go a long way further. More selection, more vocational schools, more faith schools.”
But Mr Woodhead conceded there was little appetite politically for such measures. “It stands very badly politically. None of the main parties are in favour of selection and a lot of difficulties have been put in the way of faith schools. But, if I was a parent in Birmingham, one of the questions I would be asking is does the city have enough selective and faith schools or does it have too many comprehensives.”
Mr Woodhead was often a colourful figure during his time as Chief Inspector of Schools from 1996 to 2000. One of his first controversial comments, in his first few months in the job, was to claim that 15,000 incompetent teachers were working in schools around the country.
More than a decade on, he says nothing has changed.
“(Children’s Secretary) Ed Balls has just announced a five-year MOT check for teachers but I told the world 13 years ago that there were 15,000 incompetent teachers and nothing has been done about it. There are 500,000 teachers in the country but only 46 have ever been dismissed for being lousy teachers.
“In real terms public expenditure is 75 per cent more than it was in 1997 but, given the huge investment of public money in education, we simply haven’t seen value for money. Too many kids, particularly in disadvantaged homes, are still suffering academically.”
One of the answers, he says, is more teaching of traditional subjects such as reading and writing, history and geography, rather than things like citizenship and sustainability.