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Mister nice guy

Peter Downes retires at the end of this term. Gerald Haigh profiles one of the most respected heads of his generation

It is an honourable tradition that each generation of state school heads has within it one or two who gain the respect of a wide number of their peers.

Without trying too hard I can think of several from the past 30-odd years - Harry Judge and John Sayer, both at Banbury, Margaret Maden at Islington Green, Michael Marland at North Westminster...The list writes itself, and encompasses the widest range of achievements and philosophies.

Of those in post today, Peter Downes of Hinchingbrooke School, past-president of the Secondary Heads Association, pioneer of local financial management, prolific writer and lecturer on the management of schools, has a strong claim to recognition. John Sutton, general secretary of SHA (himself no mean head teacher in his day) described Peter to me as "one of the outstanding heads of his generation".

Now, though, Peter Downes has announced his intention to leave Hinchingbrooke, near Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire, at the end of this term. Although technically retiring early (he is 58) he is at pains to say that he is not among the heads who, we are led to believe, are queuing up to take disillusionment packages. "I still enjoy my job," he says. "I'm full of projects and there are no negative factors in this at all."

So why go, especially from what must be the most attractively situated school in the country? (How many comprehensive schools have stately home parkland settings that are in demand for wedding receptions? How many have gardens once strolled in by Samuel Pepys?)

Peter gives three reasons. "For one thing, there comes a time when any school needs a fresh face. There are things to do and someone else needs to do it."

His second reason arises from his recognition that for a school to have a well known head can be a mixed blessing. "For the past five years the school has had to put up with a head who has been on the national scene. I don't feel I've neglected the school, but now it needs a head who is going to be there all the time."

And finally, he acknowledges that it is time to look at his personal life. "I'm asked to do so many things and my instinct is to say yes, but fitting it all in as head of the tenth largest school in the country is getting quite difficult."

In the week of our interview, for example, Peter had completed three major speaking engagements in five days. "And yesterday I was in school first thing, then I went to London for two meetings, then back for a parents' evening. I got down to my in-tray at 10pm. It all makes a mockery of any sort of personal life."

Peter's incredible energy is a source of continuing wonder to those who observe it. One colleague will tell you of his chairmanship of the county youth orchestra and of his work with a local group looking at language development in under-fives. Someone else will recall his prowess as a cricketer and pre-dawn jogger. You begin to wonder whether, for example, he ever stops to watch television. Well, the answer is yes, but as Jim Jackson, chairman of Hinchingbrooke's governors, pointed out: "His television is tuned to France. " (Peter came through the profession as a modern linguist, and still loves teaching French.) Jim Jackson wonders "how the hell he keeps going. He typically phones me at 11 at night, when he's just got in from a meeting. "

So, you do begin to understand a need to slow down. But why go just now?

A clue came as we walked the grounds. Among the school's various buildings - from the sixth form block which was once the ancestral home of the Earls of Sandwich to the striking new performing arts centre which is yet another testimony to his leadership - is tucked a gaggle of decidedly unattractive looking temporary structures. Over the next two years their replacement by permanent buildings is going to be a significant pre-occupation. "I didn't fancy overseeing all that and then retiring just as they were complete. "

He knows very well just what it is to run a school during a major building project. When he went to Hinchingbrooke, the school was on two sites. "They were a quarter of a mile apart with a main road in the middle. One maths teacher had seven road crossings to make each Friday."

Putting the school together on the main site became what he now believes to be his most significant Hinchingbrooke achievement - a six-year project, from 1986 to 1992, is how he describes it.

Peter Downes came to Hinchingbrooke in 1982. Before that he had spent seven years as head of Henry Box School in Witney, Oxfordshire. Interestingly - and in common with John Sutton - he was never a deputy head. He started his career as a French master at his own old school, Manchester Grammar, and from there went to be head of linguistic studies at Banbury School when, during the Seventies, it was the biggest school in the country. From there he went to Henry Box.

He was attracted to Cambridgeshire because of its pioneering approach to local financial management and, as time went on, he helped the authority and his fellow heads both to establish the principles and to understand the detail of what eventually became Local Management of Schools. Everyone to whom I spoke - governors, SHA, the local authority - paid tribute to Peter's work in this area. Carey Bennet, education officer for the Huntingdon area, acknowledged that "Peter was a leading light in the development of LMS within Cambridgeshire." It was an interest that led him to become, as he now is, a national - and critical - expert on the financing of schools.

Colleagues are anxious, though, that his reputation as a financial manager should not overshadow other achievements. John Sutton wanted to draw attention to the way that Peter has used his school as a research base - a source of data and information on such things as the fall in the levels of attainment when children tranfer to secondary school and on the differences in achievement between boys and girls. "These are issues he has pioneered and lectured widely on."

Martin Hopkinson, a Hinchingbrooke governor, also spoke of Peter as an enthusiastic teacher of French. State school heads, he pointed out, still come through the teaching route. "And the successful ones must surely keep something of that - a sense that teaching matters to them, and is not just a break in the pressure of headship."

It was Peter's year as SHA president (1994-1995) which, in a sense, opened his eyes to a wider educational world - "the contacts I made there; the people I met." He travelled widely in Europe and North America, as well as visiting and speaking to SHA colleagues in every area of the country. He strongly denied, though, my suggestion that perhaps the SHA year gave him itchy feet. "I went back keen to feed back new ideas into Hinchingbrooke."

Others, though, sensed things a little differently. "Many of us recognised, " says Martin Hopkinson, "that he would never come back from his SHA secondment with a long-term comitment - you have to go on in life". Peter has managed his exit carefully so as to make for as painless a transition as possible - his governors had 12 months notice, for example - and, typically, he plans to write up the process of transition in management journals soon after he leaves.

Replacing him will be Dr Peter Sainsbury, currently head of Hind Leys Community College in Shepshed, Leicestershire. Hinchingbrooke governors have not, of course, looked for a Downes clone. Martin Hopkinson, a governor when Peter was appointed, spoke of "selecting heads who can add value to what we already have. Peter has undoubtedly done that, and so will his successor."

Peter intends to be a consultant, and to work with Hodder Stoughton on the commissioning of modern languages texts. The whole profession surely wishes him well, for the degree of respect and affection in which he is held is quite remarkable. There have been professional differences of course - Martin Hopkinson recalls numerous fierce disagreements. Always, though, come such phrases as "A thoroughly likeable chap," and "I've never heard a word personally said against him." Perhaps the most significant instant reaction, though, came from Jim Jackson who, seconds into our conversation, blurted out, with great gusto, "He's a bloody good head - oh, perhaps you can't print that!" But I can, and must, because it is surely the accolade that matters most.

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