Saturday morning in a wood-panelled hall in an Oxford college, and the chair of a day-long conference run by the charity Human Scale Education introduces the first speaker. "You all know Tim Brighouse," she says. "His work in Birmingham has been marvellous and so has his resistance." The rumpled man in cords and sweater takes the floor, offering, with studied understatement, "a couple of asides and values, and an idea". An impassioned 20 minutes follows, taking in relationships in schools, the need for children to experience focus and passion, the wisdom of the 1930s schools inspector John Blackie and the lack of that quality in the previous chief inspector but one, success for all, the nature of integrity, the "obscenity" of a national anti-truancy drive given the number of school days lost to fixed-term exclusions, multiple intelligences and - as promised - an idea.
En route, he makes the audience laugh. Professor Tim Brighouse - famous for his unmanicured appearance, his seeing-off of Tory education secretary John Patten, his outclassing of former chief inspector Chris Woodhead and, most of all, for his idiosyncratic brand of inspirational leadership - leaves Birmingham later this year. Chief education officer in the city for the past nine years, he has won local and national respect and entered the imagination of teachers; a secondary head in the south of England, describing her CEO, explained that he was "not a Tim Brighouse".
Profiled by the late Julia Hagedorn in The TES after his stint at Oxfordshire - he was chief education officer there from 1978 to 1988, studied history at St Catherine's College and still has his home in Oxford - Mr Brighouse was taken aback to read of himself that "the best is yet to come". He says: "I thought, 'Oh my Goooood, this is terrible'. Because I thought I was done. I was exhausted. So I thought I'd better get some energy and get on with something."
Already well known when he took up the Birmingham appointment, Mr Brighouse came into his own there, leading a turnaround of the city's educational performance and culture, and influencing central government from his Midlands base.
Birmingham, with 659 schools, 178,000 pupils and 8,000 teachers, is the largest local education authority in England. It has high unemployment, one child in three is entitled to free school meals, 43 per cent are from ethnic minorities, and pockets of affluence punctuate the swathes of inner-city poverty. After years of neglect of education, the challenge Tim Brighouse faced when he took up the post in 1993 was immense. "Birmingham was a desert," recalls a secondary head of 15 years' standing. "Underfunded, with widespread cynicism and despair. Morale was at rock bottom."
Mr Brighouse saw it rather differently, describing the job offer as "manna from heaven". He had spent four years (1989-93) as head of Keele University's education department, in what he refers to as "the Keele interlude", and used the opportunity to pursue his interest in school improvement and effectiveness. "I was like a voracious eater who couldn't get enough on improvement and effectiveness; the subtleties around teaching and learning. That's what I was doing and perpetually writing and thinking about."
Birmingham gave him the opportunity to put his ideas into practice. It helped that he liked the city. "It's got right under my skin," he says. "It's a wonderful place, a can-do place, not like other British cities, more like an American city." A riff follows on the Lunar Society, an 18th-century think-tank of Birmingham radicals including the potter Josiah Wedgwood and the engineer James Watt, who met monthly on the Monday nearest the full moon - "their spirit has carried on; it's deep in the cultural psyche" - and ends with a quotation from a local transport ticket: "leave London behind; we have".
But his prime qualification, he says, was that he was undaunted. "What I brought to the place was, having done the job once before, I wasn't afraid of making mistakes and, if there was something wrong, owning up to it. I wasn't afraid of taking the blame." He leaves the job as someone widely liked (loved, one could say in his case without being sentimental) and with an overwhelmingly positive Ofsted report. Inspectors concluded in April this year that Birmingham local authority has "done much to overcome the educational effects of a high degree of disadvantage", and said it was "an example to all others", due mainly to "the energising and inspirational example set by the chief education officer".
While still below national averages, exam and test results are improving faster than the national norm. The number of 11-year-olds gaining level 4 in SATs has almost doubled in five years and a quarter more pupils now get five A*-C passes at GCSE. Teacher shortages are less acute than might be expected, and school morale is generally high. The keynote has changed from a drive to "improve on previous best" (the concept that initiated the first phase of change) to an ambition to be at the "leading edge" of practice. "Because once you've got people motoring, you really want them to go to the leading edge of performance and practice," says Tim Brighouse.
Despite the successes in Birmingham, he is uncomfortable being seen as the personification of the process. School improvement was made possible by important preconditions: a city council committed to education (spending in Birmingham is now among the highest in the country, with average delegated funding to schools of pound;2,748 per pupil), consistently supportive politicians, a comprehensive briefing from a team headed by Professor Ted Wragg, and existing strong leadership.
"I would never want to say I've done anything here," he says. "A whole range of people have done it. I've occasionally spoken about it or written about it or exclaimed about it or commented about it. A combination between a commentator and a coach. I knew where we were going. But it's everybody else that does the work."
It's a point conceded by his supporters and critics alike. He's a leader not a manager, some say. "He's been the shining light in the city, not so much for the practical stuff, but for the way he's brought you along with him on that swell of inspiration," says John McNally, 30 years a Birmingham primary head. His democratic style - "Dear Colleague," his termly letters to heads begin, proceeding to detail "issues we shall need to consider together in the forthcoming weeks" - gets people on side and isn't an affectation. He waxes lyrical on certain schools, individuals, mentors, projects and, in his frequent unannounced visits to schools, absorbs examples of good practice that he celebrates in his regular column in the education authority's bulletin. Going to schools "fills me up", he says. "You see something that might take your thinking on a bit. There's the excitement of the hunt for new knowledge."
Mr Brighouse appears to give most of himself to his work, staying in Birmingham during the week, rising early and carrying on working into the evening over late-night baltis with the chair of the education committee Roy Pinney and others. "Ican only do my job by being very busy," he says. "It's the only way I know."
He provides his own definition of leadership - from the bottom up. "Leadership is hugely important, but it needs to be shared," he says. "It's not a singular activity. And it doesn't matter how good the leadership is; if the players aren't playing well, you're not going to do well. It has to start with staff in schools - the learning assistant and the teacher in the classroom who see with infinite skill, lucidity and enthusiasm bits of the scene that when shared with other people, who equally see other bits, make a whole picture. Successful and sustained leadership has to be, in so far as you can manage it, bottom-up."
A major plank in the improvement strategy has been his personal notes. From the start, he asked advisers to provide names of people "committed to an amazing degree, who've done this or done that". They then received one of his famously illegible letters thanking them for their efforts. "It's people's need for being recognised as special," he says. "The whole of education is about multiplying specialness. I've kept that up fairly well. I think people know you do bother, you do spend a hell of a lot of time on it. And if kids write to me, I try to write back."
John McNally received one. "I had one saying, 'I was feeling down, and I thought of you and the work you do in the city.' He sent me a book that he'd signed. Most heads will have had something like that from him and most of us will remember him as that person who gave us the lift to carry on."
The notes are now sent on email, and easier to read.
Inevitably, there have been sticking points with heads - notably on inclusion. The number of permanent exclusions, though down, remains higher than the national average, with 198 in the year 200001, and Mr Brighouse has, at times, been a keener exponent than teachers and heads of managing emotional and behavioural difficulties in school.
If Keele was an interlude, Birmingham has been an odyssey - starting with a legal action. It seems unlikely that anyone would now remember that the former Tory education secretary, John Patten, had described Tim Brighouse as a "nutter" if he hadn't gone to court. Mr Brighouse, backed by a legal fighting fund donated by teachers, won an apology in the High Court and a pound;45,000 out-of-court settlement which has since been given away to educational causes. Was it the right decision? "I had to respond because it was my first six weeks here," he says. "If he'd picked up the phone and said, 'I didn't mean it', that would have been an end to it. But he didn't."
The action, taken with the approval of Birmingham's politicians, provided a useful stalking horse. "It meant that for a year I could get on with my work. I was almost on hold with the politicians, because if they said anything against me, where would my action go?"
It also foreshadowed his symbolic taking on of another education figure mistrusted by teachers. Tim Brighouse described Ofsted under Chris Woodhead as a "reign of terror". He preferred the carrot to the stick in his own authority, aiming to bring about school improvement through consultation and support, rather than by naming and shaming individual schools or quantifying the number of inadequate teachers. Push came to shove in 1998 when Birmingham was one of the first local authorities to be inspected by Mr Woodhead's Ofsted. Tim Brighouse contested drafts of the report and a public row broke before the then education secretary David Blunkett stepped in with heavyweight endorsement of the Birmingham project.
Yet Mr Woodhead and Mr Brighouse worked together as joint chairs of the Government's standards task force between 1997 and 1999. "Blunkett made it possible," says Brighouse. "He wanted me to do it and there are some things you need to do, even if you will be uncomfortable doing it." He denies feeling any sense of triumph that Chris Woodhead has effectively disappeared from view. "The most shameful thing I'll own up to is the sense of pleasure I got from reviewing his book in The TES (Friday magazine, March 8). Every now and then I write something I'm proud of, but it was a little bit dirty to have got such a good adrenalin rush from it. He was profoundly wrong in his job; he did huge damage. So yes, I wanted to moderate. That said, I can't find it in myself to dislike him as a person."
"David" is a friend; "Estelle" too. But Mr Brighouse, who joined the Labour Party only recently under the influence of his county councillor second wife, describes himself as "agin central government". Any central government. "They fall into the trap of believing that control, regulation and inspection are going to change things. It's exercising power, but not releasing energy. Energy is about influence, not control." He could have had a job in David Blunkett's department, he says, but told him that "you'd get fed up with me in a month". Mr Blunkett replied that he "knew what he meant".
Still, the tide appears to be turning in his direction. Michael Barber, head of the Department for Education and Skills' delivery unit, wrote recently that while the Government had been "unapologetically prescriptive" in its first term, there was now a recognition that it inhibited "confidence, innovation and creativity at the front line".
The Schools Achieving Success White Paper promises to return a degree of autonomy to teachers - and hints at something that sounds suspiciously like leadership from the bottom up. Meanwhile, Tim Brighouse is off on the trail of his new idea - collegiate academies. "For every school you magnetise, you demagnetise another," he says. Developments in ICT make new ways of inter-school working possible, he believes, and embryonic clusters have been set up in Birmingham and Middlesbrough, with funding from a major educational foundation. He will oversee their progress and aims to get support for a development and research project on further collegiate academies, in cities here and in the United States. "That's what I burningly want to do," he says.
He leaves Birmingham this autumn with plenty still to come.
1940 Born in Loughborough
1955-58 Attends Lowestoft grammar school
1961 BAHons modern history, Oxford
1962 Postgraduate certificate, Oxford University; head of history department, Cavendish grammar school, Buxton
1964-66 MA, Oxford; deputy headteacherwarden at Chepstow community college
1966-69 Assistant education officer, Monmouthshire County Council
1969-74 Senior assistant education officer, Buckinghamshire County Council
1974-76 Under-secretary education, Association of County Councils
1976-78 Deputy chief education officer, Inner London Education Authority
1978-88 Chief education officer, Oxfordshire County Council
1989-93 Professor of Education, Keele University
1993 Chief education officer, Birmingham