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Opinion: Why should we care who Woodhead bedded?

It feels odd to be on the same side of an argument as Tony Blair and David Blunkett - but, in the case of the ridiculous campaign by the teachers' unions to oust the chief inspector of schools, strange bedfellows cannot be avoided. And all the time that Blair and Blunkett are maintaining that Chris Woodhead should be judged on his performance rather than his sexual conduct, I'm on their side.

We should all hope Woodhead continues to brazen out the allegation that in 1974, when he was a headmaster, he had an affair with a sixth former. We should be indifferent as to whether or not it contributed to the breakdown of his marriage. Why should we care? It's not our business.

It is about time a sense of perspective was introduced in the discussion around sexual misconduct and it is good to see that there are still some in public life who are not prepared to roll over when they are discovered getting their leg over. Even Bill Clinton, one of the few to brazen out sexual exposure, felt obliged to humiliate himself by repeated grovelling apologies. Woodhead cuts a better figure, simply insisting that the girl had left school by the time of the affair and then shrugging the episode off as nobody's business but his own.

And how right he is. There is no suggestion that Amanda, the girlfriend, was coerced or exploited. There is no suggestion that he rigged her marks. She was over the age of consent. There is no suggestion that she suffered in any way as a result of the encounter. So why does it matter at all?

It is easy to forget that the horror of teacher/sixth former relationships is a recent preoccupation, of a society haunted by obsessions about sexually predatory men and abused child-women. This is not how things were in the post-pill, pre-AIDS mid-1970s. Sex was simply not such a big deal.

My biology teacher and my PE teacher (why is it always the PE teacher?) both semi-openly dated sixth formers. We curious fourth formers were consumed with curiosity and envy as we watched them taken off in one or other of the teacher's cars. There was a rumour that, let's call him Mr Jones, had been reprimanded by the headmaster for taking his 17-year old girlfriend into a pub. But nobody ever seemed to care much about the fact that they often arrived at school together in the morning. We all assumed they were 'doing it' - of course we did. As for exploitation: I admit that, in a funny sort of way, we were all very concerned about it, although it isn't a word we would have used. As we were all truly in love with 'Mr Jones' we were very concerned that Helena cared about his MG more than she cared for him. Poor, exploited 'Mr Jones'.

Things were different then. Nobody would have thought to challenge the fact that the average sixth former at my grammar-school-turned-sixth-form-college was an adult perfectly capable of handling most of what life had to throw at them. The teachers' girlfriends were not vulnerable victims but mature, sassy, middle class and manipulative. They would have been horrified and insulted by any insinuation that they were in relationships that exploited them. They were taking advantage of the fact that they could enjoy the company of men who had a rather more interesting line of chat (not to mention chat-up) than your average 'sixth-form Sid'.

In the mid-1970s, typical grammar-school girls left sixth form after A-levels in June, and started their first university term in the following October clutching a cheque for a term's worth of grant - for which they were responsible. Usually they did not return home until Christmas, if then. Sixth formers were on the cusp of independence and it is hardly surprising that some of them practised their sexual and social skills on their teachers.

Sex was also different in the 1970s. Sex could be good, bad, indifferent - but as long as it was consensual it generally was not seen as damaging. Often sex was just not a big deal. Casual sex meant just that - it was casual. Teenagers were not warned that having sex with somebody was a sign of low esteem, because it wasn't. Nor were they taught that a broken relationship was emotionally scarring, because it wasn't. Teenagers expected to survive beyond the end of sexual relationships. In the 1970s sex was something you took in your stride. So it is a shame that Chris and Amanda's (no doubt) fond memories of each other are being held up to public scrutiny.

The real scandal is not that a headmaster allegedly had a relationship with a sixth former, but that his former colleagues insist that it influences his capacity to carry out his professional responsibilities today.

Ann Bradley

Reproduced from LM issue 120, May 1999

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