David Hopkins, the man who “saved Chris Woodhead’s life”, pays tribute

Chris Woodhead was by any standard, one of the most influential educationalists of his generation. As a young teacher he developed innovative curricula and examinations for his students; later he became an educational administrator in local authorities and the curriculum and examination agencies.

It was as Her Majesties Chief Inspector (HMCI) however, between 1994 and 2000, that he had significant impact and was at his most controversial. Never one to back down from an argument Chris almost single handedly defined the “standards agenda” during the 1990s.

Woodhead was eclectic in his conception of the term “standards” and over time used it to advance his views on educational performance, learning, curriculum and above all teacher quality.

It was here that his views were regarded as most contentious, but where in reality he probably made his greatest contribution. His now notorious claim that there were 15,000 “incompetent teachers” in England’s classrooms was almost certainly an underestimate.

It presaged subsequent and more forensic analyses of teaching quality by international organizations such as the OECD and academic researchers. Chris was the first to articulate so clearly that it is one’s child’s teacher that it is the critical variable in their success, rather than the school that they go to.

Although we agreed on the importance of teacher quality, this is not to say that we were on the same page on all educational issues. We shared a similar commitment to the importance and form of initial teacher education, literacy and what is nowadays termed the development of “character”.

Where we differed, among other topics, was on his didactic approach to the curriculum and curiously his antipathy to the concept of learning skills. Engaging Chris in debate was always a challenge, for he took no prisoners. I remember late one evening in his office at Ofsted where during one such argument, he turned and pointing his wine glass at me – “You know the difference between you and me? It is that you think you are right and I know I am right.”

Our friendship was grounded in rock climbing. Chris was an extremely enthusiastic and committed rock climber, but never operated quite at the top grade. For his 50th birthday present I offered to lead him up “Suicide Wall” an iconic and extreme climb located on Bosigran a cliff in Cornwall situated close to his cottage he lived in.

We started early and Chris was unusually apprehensive. After the initial few pitches we found ourselves below the overhanging crux pitch that traversed across the face, situated some 200 feet above the boiling sea. Chris started the pitch tentatively and at the end of the traverse lost control and hanging free started grasping for my trousers. He eventually managed to get onto the ledge and we successfully completed the climb. Giving an interview to the Times a few months later, Chris self deprecatingly said that I had “saved his life”. My quotient of hate mail increased significantly during the following weeks!

Chris became a trenchant, appropriate and incisive critique of Government policy in the years following his resignation as HMCI. Then in 2006 he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, that together with liver cancer being the cause of his premature death.

Chris faced these challenges with his characteristic equanimity and bravery supported by his family and close friends. It is a real testimony to the man that towards the end of his life he provided a role model not only to those such as parents committed to his educational views, but also to those others who sadly shared his terminal illnesses.

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