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The best of friends

Not so much chalk and talk as chalk and cheese - Mike, on secondment as head at a struggling comprehensive, and Bernard, head for 12 years at a pound;7,200-a-year grammar school, are living proof that opposites attract. Harvey McGavin reports on an unusual friendship

Meet Mike. Northerner, pipe smoker and unreformed socialist. A comprehensive headteacher with the straight-talking style of a football manager, a job he might have liked in another life. Indeed, he is a lifelong Blackburn Rovers fan - his modest saloon car is decked out with Ewood Park paraphernalia. He's also the proud owner of a retired greyhound. There's a photo of her on his office wall, alongside pictures of his wife, a north country street corner, and St Gerasimos, patron saint of Cephalonia, known for his ability to tame wild animals. Comes in handy in his job.

Then there's Bernard. Southerner, non-smoker and liberal. Educated at boarding school in Somerset and Oxford, he's headteacher of a fee-paying grammar school and an accomplished musician, composer and conductor. If they ever think of making a film of his life, the casting director should give John Cleese a call. Modern art adorns the walls of his office, along with a certificate commemorating the time he abseiled down the school clock tower. Never again, he says. Bernard's more of a jazz man than a sportsman. He plays with his old pals from university in a band called the Catte Street Rhythm Wreckers.

An unlikely match, you might think. "A lot of people think we are opposites," admits Bernard. But in spite of appearances, they are good friends and valued professional colleagues - proof that in the sometimes lonely occupation of school leadership, a friend in the business is a friend indeed. Even if, educationally speaking, they are poles apart. Both serve on the council of the Secondary Heads Association - where Mike cheerfully describes himself as "the agit-prop wing". But, says an SHAcolleague, "they have a very supportive friendship. They are very different people but they have a passion for education and are extremely hard-working. It's important to talk to heads from different backgrounds - there's a lot that the maintained sector can learn from the independent sector."

Another colleague, referring in jest to their unequal stature (Bernard is tall; Mike not-so-tall), calls them Little and Large, and they share a good sense of humour. But as comedy double acts go, they have other ideas, and within minutes of meeting for lunch, they jokily refer to each other as Captain Mainwaring and Stupid Boy.

Bernard Trafford and Mike Hardacre come from opposite ends of England, but their careers brought them to the same place, Wolverhampton, where they met eight years ago. Even here, they inhabit quite different worlds. After several posts at the sharp end of the state sector, Mike is now director of Wolverhampton's education action zone, and his reputation as a fixer has taken him on secondment to the Northicote school, a struggling comprehensive. Bernard can be found in the altogether more genteel surroundings of the town's grammar school, where he started as head of music 21 years ago and has been head for the past 12.

Wolverhampton grammar's handsome Victorian schoolroom was opened in 1875. But the school's history goes back even further - to 1512 - and the Queen visited in 1962 to celebrate its 450th anniversary. The school has changed a lot since then, admitting girls in the 1980s and going fully co-educational in 1992. It has well-appointed classroom blocks and boasts a sports complex that could serve a small town. There's a relaxed, almost campus-like atmosphere to the place, with a smart new library and sixth-form centre where students are quietly going about their revision.

"You can feel the atmosphere of friendliness and commitment as you walk around the school," says its website, and it's true. At one point, Bernard even addresses one of his pupils as "mate". His liberal principles might have a few old Wulfrunians turning in their graves, but he is a keen proponent of democracy in schools. He has written widely on the subject, even if he sometimes wishes the student council he instigated didn't spend so much time lobbying for more chips at lunch. He doesn't stand on ceremony - his name badge says staff rather than headteacher, and he's abolished designated parking spaces.

His next project is to decide where to put the arts complex he's planning somewhere on his 22 acres of school grounds, with lush playing fields, Astroturf pitches and mature trees that would be the envy of most schools. On the other side of town, Mike has 18 acres of playing fields but a rather different problem. He can't afford to maintain them, so lets them out to a specialist college's land yachting club.

Northicote is difficult to distinguish from any number of post-war schools serving suburban council estates. Its square, brick buildings are linked by corridors that stretch as far as the eye can see. They are thronging with kids on their way to the last lesson of the day. In contrast to the calm orderliness that greets Bernard on his rounds, within minutes of walking through the door, Mike is stationed at the foot of a flight of stairs, enforcing the one-way system introduced as a make-do solution to the school's poor design. Soon he's sidelined two girls for their loose interpretation of the uniform rules - white Nike trainers and casual jackets are definitely not regulation wear. "You've got to keep on top of things, do the Blackboard Jungle bit. It's a bit like being a sheriff," he smiles.

You can tell he enjoys it. A career spent in some of the most demanding schools the state sector has to offer led to a 13-year headship of Coppice community school in Wolverhampton, which he built up into a successful and popular comprehensive. "That was a long haul," he says. Two-and-a-half years ago, he became director of Wolverhampton EAZ, but Northicote was in difficulties and he was brought in to sort it out. So far, he has trimmed a six-figure overdraft and tidied up the admin, without, he's pleased to say, making anyone redundant.

Bernard, on the other hand, is mortgaged by several million, but relatively unconcerned about it. It's not an unusual situation for the head of an independent school to be in.

The financial disparities don't end there. While Bernard's pupils pay him pound;7,200 a year for the privilege of a private education, Mike can only afford to spend about half that amount on each of his. In a curious way this disparity in their circumstances makes their relationship easier. In fact, because the two schools are so far apart socially, they are not competing for the same pupils. Mike's pupils all come from the surrounding area of Bushbury, while Bernard's catchment area stretches 20 miles. "We are not in competition, which is a huge advantage. If you are all fishing in the same pool, it can make relationships a bit fraught," Mike says. He's not against independent schools ("it's just an upfront commercial transaction") and reserves his scorn for church schools and city technology colleges. "They are the biggest draws away from the maintained sector."

Even with the well-behaved, highly motivated students and grand surroundings, Mike wouldn't want Bernard's job. "I could do it but it wouldn't give me job satisfaction. The philosophy of what we are doing is identical, we are just in different niches."

They have more in common than most people realise, not least the heavy workload and responsibility that go with running a school. "It's a four or five nights a week job - and sometimes weekends," says Bernard. Having someone to lean on or call for advice when the going gets tough is a godsend. "Mike's been a good friend to me over the years," he says. Their wives work for the same local authority so the four of them like to get together for dinner parties at each other's houses. But the long working week of a headteacher means their Friday night sessions quaffing real ale down at Mike's local have become an all too occasional pleasure. "But when we do get together we always have a great time and talk about everything under the sun," says Mike.

Ask them separately to sum up their educational principles and they'll tell you the same thing. "Schools are there to serve children and their community - not the needs of their staff," says Mike.

Bernard regrets the passing of the assisted places scheme. "We were one of its biggest users. I didn't welcome the pressure to become more middle-class and selective. It's easy for me to say this being in the selective, independent sector, but kids should have the best - all kids."

When it comes down to it, they both work hard to do their best for the children in their care. Which, north or south, rich or poor, is what being a headteacher is about.

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