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Tales of leadership from the leather sofa

THE green leather sofas, the bowl of dried flowers on the coffee table and the cameras - all it needed was Michael Parkinson to saunter on with his celebrity guests.

But this wasn't a BBC studio (although Greg Dyke gets his turn in April). It was one of the National College for School Leadership's series of "leadership stories", in which the great and the good chat casually about their lives.

Seated on the sofas in a lecture hall behind the grand facade of Winchester's Guildhall were guests Mike Tomlinson, Tom Bentley and local headteacher Spokey Wheeler.

They probably don't have the popular pulling power outside education to justify even a few minutes of airtime. And it seemed a little self-indulgent to explore all three of Spokey's literary inspirations.

The head of Wavell secondary school in Farnborough cited Dylan Thomas, Harper Lee and a poetry compilation. And Tom Bentley definitely didn't go quietly into the night when asked to describe Demos, the left-leaning think-tank he heads.

But audience members admitted relief at being spared PowerPoint presentations. And it's hard to go wrong when your star guest is Her Majesty's likeable chief inspector of schools. Especially when he admits to having been expelled from nursery school after only two days. Disappointingly, the toddler rebel's cardinal sin was refusing to take his afternoon nap.

Teachers are beginning to get used to HMCI talking about working with and supporting schools. But there was still an instinctive double-take when Mr Tomlinson spoke of getting rid of the "blame" culture and encouraging teachers to take risks. Tom Bentley, playing Hugh Grant to Mr Tomlinson's Anthony Hopkins (or is that David Beckham to George Best?) took it even further. We all need to fail in order to learn.

However, Mr Tomlinson's most practical advice for headteachers was not to get drunk with their leadership counterparts in industry. His "morning after" nemesis, during a spell as education liaison officer for chemicals giant ICI, was someone called John Harvey Jones.

Clearly, industrialists have more time to practise the art of drinking others under the table, while teachers just pile it with that night's marking.

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