Chris Woodhead’s legacy lives on – and it’s training thousands of happy teachers

10 March 2016

Professor Sir Chris WoodheadThe controversial former boss of Ofsted’s philosophy lives on in the University of Buckingham’s education department, writes his former right-hand man Geraint Jones.

I attended a Service of Thanksgiving for the life and work of Sir Chris Woodhead at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, last week.

The former Ofsted chief, who died in June last year, had suffered from motor-neurone disease in his final years.

After resigning from Ofsted at the turn of the century following a series of rows with David Blunkett, Sir Chris set about two new ventures. The first was to establish Cognita, a for-profit independent school chain which has now grown to be the biggest of its type in Europe. The second was to start a teacher training department, which he did in 2002 at the University of Buckingham.

I worked as one of Sir Chris’s headteachers at Cognita before becoming the company’s director of education. For a decade or so, I was his right-hand man. Now I am the Dean of the School of Education at the University of Buckingham and I still believe he was the greatest educationalist of modern times.

You might think I would have some scars from working with Sir Chris for so long. I only have one. It came from a disagreement we had over someone he wanted to appoint and I did not. We laughed about it afterwards. He claimed to be testing my courage to stand up to him.

We complemented each other. He was the thinker, I was the doer. He liked the theory, I liked the detail.

Sir Chris was not the man that the media so often portrayed. He became infamous in the late 1990s for saying that 15,000 incompetent teachers should be sacked. Looking back, I would argue that the figure was conservative, but Sir Chris said it at a time when it was politically incorrect to say such things, and the media and teacher unions jumped on it.

Was he a hard man? Yes. Was he uncompromising in his quest to raise standards? Yes. Was he often wrong? No. Was he as bad a man as the media made out? No. Those who knew him best will lay testament to his loyalty to them and his courage to protect them from any harm.

Sir Chris retired from the chairmanship of Cognita in 2013, but his legacy is not found in the school group. It is, instead, firmly in the fabric of the University of Buckingham’s School of Education, where Woodheadian principles of teaching and school leadership are embedded in its courses.

When Chris started the first PGCE at Buckingham, there were just 12 teachers. This year there are over 500 and the alumni run to more than 3,000. Of significant importance is that over 90 per cent of them are still in the profession. This is much higher than the national figure of roughly 60 per cent of new teachers staying in the profession after 5 years.

Why is it that Buckingham’s education department is seeing unprecedented growth while others are dwindling in numbers or closing, and why do so many Buckingham graduates stay in the profession?

I put the success partly down to Woodhead’s vision. Chris wanted trainee teachers to learn how to teach in schools rather than sitting in university lectures for a third of the course. Our trainees spend only nine days of the year at Buckingham. They are teaching and observing in schools for the rest of the time.

Our PGCE courses are for teachers in full employment in schools but have no formal teacher training qualification. We train them well because the significant majority of the course concentrates on developing their craft in the classroom. I believe they stay in teaching because they like what they do and are good at it. They become skilful teachers and can handle the tougher parts of the job.

Sir Chris believed that the effectiveness of a teacher depends on three things: the knowledge they have of their subject, their passion for it and their desire to continually learn the craft of teaching it. We expect our trainees to have excellent subject knowledge and be passionate about what they are teaching. We, therefore, concentrate on developing their teaching skills: ie, the ability to explain ideas in a way that engages their pupils, to ask questions and respond to answers in a way that prompts children’s thought and interest, to maintain good discipline and to have the highest possible expectations of their children.

In 2008, Buckingham added a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership to its portfolio, and over 500 aspirant and serving heads have since completed the course.

Four in every five Buckingham MEd graduates are now heads or have been promoted, which is testament to the quality of the course.

With the national shortage of heads, part of Sir Chris’s vision was to build a qualification which would prepare teachers to lead schools. Our course is run by successful heads who, in true Woodhead style, cut through the unnecessary bureaucracies of leadership and get to the point of how to lead people.

As a leader Chris inspired loyalty. He was charismatic, intelligent and witty. Above all, though, he was authentic – he did what he said he would do, and this is one of the most respected qualities of a good teacher, and certainly a good headteacher. We talk a lot about authenticity on the MEd.

In Sir Chris’s final days, we spent time talking about his life and work. His proudest achievement was not his work at Ofsted or Cognita, but rather at Buckingham, where his educational philosophies will remain intact and continue to thrive.

Chris’s legacy will be the impact of his teachings in schools and classrooms up and down the country, his commitment to raising standards, his desire to dignify the teaching profession and his rejection of so-called progressive and trendy teaching methods. Chris often quoted Matthew Arnold that teachers should teach ‘the best of what has been thought and said’. Those running schools should look no further than Woodhead’s philosophies for the best of what has been thought and said in education.

Professor Geraint Jones is dean of the School of Education, University of Buckingham