HC Deb 15 March 2001 vol 364 cc1173-6
4. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

If he will make a statement on the circumstances in which Mr. Chris Woodhead ceased being Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools. [152552]

8. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

What categories of advice given to him by Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools are confidential. [152557]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

Chris Woodhead tended his resignation following the meeting of the business appointments committee on Thursday 2 November last year. We agreed that he would leave Ofsted at the end of November.

Her Majesty's chief inspector provides me with advice on a range of matters and may publish reports that include advice that is intended to be in the public domain. In other circumstances, the chief inspector's advice normally remains confidential.

Mr. Amess

Does the Secretary of State now accept that Mr. Woodhead's subsequent remarks cannot be dismissed as being of no consequence? Is it not the reality that the slogan "education, education, education" means more bits of paper and ill-thought-out initiatives? Is not the truth that Mr. Woodhead resigned because he could no longer inspect schools on which he believed that the Government had failed to deliver, and that the Secretary of State's epitaph will be that a generation of our children have been betrayed?

Mr. Blunkett

I am interested in the reality of the evidence base presented by the chief inspector and his successor in subsequent annual reports. The last one, which was signed by Mr. Woodhead, said: The quality of teaching has improved in all types of schools, in all subjects and in all year groups. I rest my case.

Mr. Prentice

May I ask my right hon. Friend what attributes he saw in Chris Woodhead when he decided to keep the chief inspector on despite the great reservations of many people in and outside education who believed that Woodhead was like a dose of anthrax to the education profession? Given that Chris Woodhead has condemned the Government for betraying a generation of children, will my right hon. Friend concede that it was an error of judgment to keep him on?

Mr. Blunkett

I make judgments as I find them and when they have to be made. In a signed article on 20 July 1999, when we were considering the improvements on which Chris Woodhead had worked with us, he said: we now have a focus on achievement, a drive to raise standards in the basic skills, and therefore across the curriculum, that we have never had before … the only way forward is to continue with those policies. I took that at face value. I was glad to work with Chris Woodhead. I wish him well and I am sorry that he has stooped to vitriol rather than sensible open debate.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

According to the latest Ofsted report, the Government's education action zones and fresh start scheme have failed to deliver, whereas in Guildford the use of the private sector under the Conservatives to improve a state school has been judged by Ofsted to be a resounding success. What does the Secretary of State read into the fact that Conservative policies to improve standards in our schools have done so well while his initiatives are failing so dismally?

Mr. Blunkett

I am happy to make a judgment on Conservative-controlled Surrey county council, which felt it necessary to bring in the technology trust from the west midlands to provide the support, guidance and back-up that the county council had failed to provide. I congratulate all those at King's Manor school and other schools throughout the country, including those in education action zones, where primary school standards have risen faster than in the rest of the country, on their tremendous achievements.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

For my part, I think that standards in schools are rising considerably, and we should reflect on that and congratulate those responsible. Does my right hon. Friend agree that instead of concentrating on the resignation of Chris Woodhead, it would be in the interests of our schools if we concentrated on the job that the new chief inspector of schools will do? In the interim, Mike Tomlinson is already talking about Ofsted being a supportive agency for schools and working with teachers to achieve the improved standards that we all want.

Mr. Blunkett

I agree that the new chief inspector has made a flying start, and I congratulate him on that. His job will be, as Chris Woodhead's was, to adduce evidence, to reveal failure and to help us understand where best practice exists so that we can take action, in conjunction with schools and education authorities, to improve standards. That is what we have done over four years, which is why 75 per cent. of our children now leave primary school able to read and write properly and 72 per cent. are numerate. It is why GCSE and A-level results have improved and the confidence and self-esteem of teachers throughout the country are rising.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

The Prime Minister described the former chief inspector of schools as his sounding board on education, so when Mr. Woodhead says that the Secretary of State's idea of the purpose of schools is depressing, narrow and utterly misguided", does the Secretary of State think that the time has come to stop betraying our children and to set schools free, recognise the importance of education for its own sake and abandon the Government's utilitarian view of education?

Mr. Blunkett

The father of utilitarianism has his head pickled in the university of London. There are those whose heads could justifiably be pickled in the same way. I shall not rise to the bait because on 4 September last year, only six weeks before he came to see me, Chris Woodhead praised the Prime Minister in an interview in The Guardian and suggested that we had no disagreements.

Mrs. May

The Secretary of State may not understand the true importance and purpose of education, but one thing he does understand is how to spin a headline. Last week, in the Budget, the Chancellor announced £1 billion of extra spending on education over the next three years; the Secretary of State welcomed that. However, a comparison of the Government's own figures for total education spending in the Red Book with the figures announced in the last spending review shows that this Budget has added not £1 billion over three years, not half of that or even a quarter of it, but only £200 million. Is that not yet another example of how the Government are all spin and no delivery? What has happened to the other £800 million—has it fallen into the black hole of the Government's education policy?

Mr. Blunkett

My view is that education is about equipping young people for life, which means getting a job and having their own family. It is also means developing a love of learning, potential and talent. To do that, people must be able both to read and write and to draw on a body of historical knowledge; they must use creative skills to reason and be able to deploy that knowledge effectively in future.

As for the Budget, we had that debate on Monday. The issue raised by the hon. Lady was raised then, and is as erroneous now as it was then. When £1 billion is added to a budget for a three-year period for the whole United Kingdom, there is £1 billion more to spend. As I have already allocated most of that for England—it is earmarked for spending on recruiting and retaining teachers and paying direct grant to schools across the country from April—we simply need to ask headteachers and schools whether they are receiving that money, and a great deal more than they ever got under the Conservative Government.