Two Chief Inspectors – Edmond Holmes and Chris Woodhead

It’s approaching a quarter of a century since Chris Woodhead became Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools. I couldn’t tell you a thing about any of his immediate predecessors; I don’t even know their names and probably never did. Woodhead, however, happily raised the profile of the position and used it to push for a back to basics programme based on traditional teaching methods (even though in his own career as a teacher and lecturer he’d advocated a much more liberal approach). As HMCI he saw little need to be seen as a friend of teachers, and asserted thousands of them were incompetent. I’m rather proud of the fact that during his time it was made clear to me I’d not be welcome as an HMI; my own approach to inspecting was perceived as being far too soft on teachers to fit the Woodhead ethos.

It was Woodhead’s period which saw the introduction of SATs throughout primary and secondary schools.   There were plenty of objections from the profession, both to the concept and the implementation. Nevertheless governments of different hues followed a tradition dating back to Palmerston in 1860. They consulted teachers, thanked them politely – and went ahead anyway, and the basic system has now been in place for more than twenty years.

Many of those objections had been foreseen years earlier, by one of Woodhead’s predecessors, who would have been appalled.

He railed against the assumption that the ability to recall factual information could be used as a simple yardstick which measures knowledge and understanding:

“…. it is quite easy to frame an examination which will ascertain, with some approach to accuracy, the amount of information that is floating on the surface of the child’s mind; and it is also easy to tabulate the results of such an examination, — to find a numerical equivalent ….”

He recognised that a school’s need to demonstrate good results in tests and examinations tends to dominate its curriculum and squeeze out everything else, particularly anything relating to independent thinking:

“In a school which is ridden by the examination incubus …. suppression of the child’s natural activities becomes the central feature of the teacher’s programme. In such a school the child is not allowed to do anything which the teacher can possibly do for him. He has to think what his teacher tells him to think, to feel what his teacher tells him to feel …. As an educator, the teacher must do his best to reduce the child to the level of a wire-pulled puppet.”

He knew that tests labelled children and whether accurate or not, that everyone, teacher and child alike, came to believe the label:

“…. the child who is low in his class is apt to accept the verdict of the class-list as final, and to regard himself as a failure …. there are many kinds of capacity which a formal examination fails to discover …. he not unnaturally acquiesces …. ends by becoming the failure which he has been taught to believe himself to be.”

He pointed out that focussing upon rules and algorithms in a mechanical manner meant that, because they were instructed that the first number in a subtraction question should be placed on the top line, children might perform a subtraction question presented as “From 95 take 57” but be unable to handle one presented as “take 57 from 95”. Likewise, using learned rules didn’t stop children giving:

“an entirely nonsensical answer to a simple arithmetical problem, – to say, for example, as I have known half a class of boys say, that a room is five shillings and sixpence wide.”

All these points seem at least as true today, not least that we value what we can measure, rather than measuring what is valuable:

“And in proportion as we tend to value the results of education for their measureableness, so we tend to undervalue and at last to ignore those results which are too intrinsically valuable to be measured.”


It’s impossible to imagine Woodhead or any of his successors making these statements, so just when were they made? All the “he’s” and “his’s” gave you a clue it was a good time ago. I’ve written before how lazy and uninformed it is to imagine that anything remotely liberal or child-centred began in trendy college departments in the 1960s. The quotes were all made long before 1960; they all come from “What Is and What Might Be”, by Edmond Holmes, HMCI from 1905 till 1911, which makes them more than a century old.

Edmond Holmes 1

Holmes had been an inspector since 1875, enforcing, with much reservation, the Payment By Results system which concentrated upon using mechanical methods to teach a “3 Rs” curriculum. He soon recognised its inadequacies, and in his Report for 1878-79 he was bold enough to comment – even though he was still sufficiently junior that he was still in his twenties –

I do not reproach them [the teachers] …. I only wonder that it is not more striking and more disastrous than it is. Circumstances are against the teacher from first to last.

In “What Is and What Might Be”, written after his retirement, Holmes returned to this theme with a vengeance:

“No one knows better than I do that the elementary teachers of this country are the victims of a vicious conception of education which has behind it twenty centuries of tradition and prescription, and the malign influence of which was intensified in their case by thirty years or more of Code despotism and ‘payment by results’ …. which seems to have been devised for the express purpose of arresting growth and strangling life, which bound us all, myself included, with links of iron, and which had many zealous agents, of whom I, alas! was one.”

You can read “What Is and What Might Be” for yourself via the The Project Gutenberg ebook version at

Edmond Holmes 2


Three months back I wrote about the remarkable Harriet Finlay Johnson and her school at Sompting.   When Holmes learned of her work he became her biggest fan. At Sompting he found everything he’d been looking for in a school for thirty years; he visited the school time and time again and featured it extensively in “What Is and What Might Be”, using the codename Utopia.

Harriet had a considerable flair for publicising what she was doing at Sompting, and with Holmes’ encouragement approving stories regularly appeared in local and national papers. She went further, and at Holmes’ suggestion wrote a book called “The Dramatic Method of Teaching”. This received wide publicity, even as far as Japan; it also went to an edition in the United States. It too is easily to find online:


Unfortunately, totally unconnected events meant they both entered retirement in 1910, and I plan to cover these in a later post.






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