Heads' chief looks forward to life after leadership

23rd July 2010 at 01:00
As the NAHT's general secretary prepares to retire, he talks to Irena Barker about the achievements - and disappointments - of his five-year tenure, his future professional interests and a dream road trip across South Africa

When a motorcycle-riding Mick Brookes arrived to take the helm at heads' union the NAHT five years ago, he certainly stood out from the crowd.

The first primary head to become the union's general secretary, his anti-establishment image was already sealed after successfully challenging the association's preferred candidate for the job.

Although at times he may have looked out of his depth in the political fray, the subsequent five years have proved that Mr Brookes is not afraid of a fight.

Indeed, the amiable demeanour and unthreatening light-coloured lounge suits belie a man who has spent half a decade on an industrial relations roller coaster.

His tenure has seen him battle through some uncomfortable face-offs with teaching unions and the Government, risking pariah status to fight the often overlooked corner of primary heads.

It has won him admirers appreciative of a general secretary who resists falling into bed with the secretary of state.

But he also has critics who claim he has been indecisive because of his on-off membership of the Social Partnership, the now defunct body which made key decisions on how the workload agreement was implemented in schools.

He withdrew the NAHT in 2005 because of a disagreement over teachers' planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time, then joined up again in 2008, then left earlier this year because he couldn't agree to the "one-size-fits-all" list of duties for assistant heads.

He was always ill-at-ease with the arrangement, he says, because all members were required to promote its decisions, even if they didn't really agree with them.

"We are not prepared to take lying down policy that is deleterious to our classrooms and schools," he says, "Asking us to sign up to the masters in teaching and learning for NQTs was like asking the teaching unions to sign up to the academies programme."

So the union has spent much of its time fighting its cause from the sidelines, something Mr Brookes believes it has been rather good at.

"The goal when I moved here was to make the association into more of a campaigning association and we have certainly done that," he says, stressing that membership has reached much healthier levels as a result.

Although some heads said it was ill-timed, taking place just before the general election, Mr Brookes cites the Sats boycott in May this year as his biggest achievement of the past five years. The Government recently published a list of schools that took part.

"My badge of honour was the 26 per cent of eligible people who had the courage to stand up and be counted in the Sats debate," he says. "Some people are saying the published list is naming and shaming, but it isn't that at all. If I was a head, I would be very proud to see my name on the list.

"It's important. We have been pretty patient about this. We have established the professional and moral high ground, and we have proved absolutely that the method of assessing children at key stage 2 is damaging, and we have shown the way forward in how to address this.

"This is more profound than a spat - it's about the profession standing up."

Indeed, his pride over the boycott remains undiminished even by the recent announcement that the tests will go ahead as normal next year.

Mr Brookes is, as ever, optimistic about what his successor Russell Hobby can achieve through talks with the Education Secretary.

"I sincerely believe there's everything to play for with Michael Gove, and hope he is not being put in a position by civil servants that makes further discussion untenable," he says.

But he admits that a lack of progress on Sats is also one of his major regrets. "My biggest disappointment is that we haven't made more ground recently on the way children are assessed," he says.

He is sorry, too, that no more headway has been made in the way schools are held to account.

It is widely acknowledged that the job of headteacher has grown immensely over the past few years, with primary heads the least likely to be supported through the maze of financial management, health and safety, safeguarding and Ofsted. This, he says, will do nothing to assuage the recruitment crisis that plagues the primary sector.

The rise of federations has boosted the numbers of highly paid management jobs in primary schools, but these arrangements are not to everyone's taste.

Last week he was called on to defend rocketing pay packets when a south London primary head was revealed to be earning more than #163;230,000 - he did so with zeal, pointing to the inflated salaries demanded by footballers and pop stars.

But come September, all this will no longer be his concern, and new projects are already appearing on the horizon.

Working with Sue Sayles, who was NAHT president in 2001, Mr Brookes is setting up an "intensive coaching" consultancy that will encourage heads to reflect on what they are doing and help them to face the complexities of the future.

Recent government policies - Labour and coalition - have meant primaries will face a much wider number of choices in who they partner with, who they buy services from, and whether they opt for academy freedoms.

"It's like on easyJet, they say: 'Please fit your oxygen mask before putting one on others.' But my only criticism of my colleagues is they neglect that," Mr Brookes says.

He hopes he can "share productively" his understanding of school leadership, combined with an overview of the national picture to good effect. "That will fade with time, but there's life in the old dog yet," he adds with a chuckle.

And outside the education arena, his other post-retirement activities suggest he is not kidding. He is already planning an intensive bodybuilding regime, overseen by his 33-year-old son Jamie, to prepare for the 2,000km Enduro Africa motorcycle ride across South Africa.

"My son took one look at me and said, 'You won't make it with arms like that', so I'm doing a weights programme to get fit," he explains.

He has already made progress towards his fundraising goal of #163;10,000, which will go to Unicef.

"I had always planned a motorcycle exhibition as a reward for 42 years of work," he says. "I wanted to do a big tour of Europe and north Africa, but someone told me it wasn't a particularly good idea to motorcycle across Algeria."

And when the two-week trip on rugged rural roads is up?

Well, his long-suffering wife Karen is looking forward to his return home to Nottinghamshire, where he has pledged to help more around the house.

What she will think of his plans for "experimental cookery" we do not know. "I'm of the school where something is good, more is better," adds the budding Heston Blumenthal.

Sponsor Mick Brookes' motorcycle ride at www.supportunicef.org.ukMicks_EnduroAfrica_Adventure


1965-66: Head boy at Fullbrook County Secondary School, West Byfleet

1969: Teacher's certificate: King Alfred's College, Winchester

1970: Worked on a kibbutz in Israel

1971: Paraffin salesman in west London

1972: Teacher, Liss County Junior School, Hampshire

1976: Deputy head, Gosberton Primary School, Lincolnshire

1978: Head, Gosberton, Clough and Risegate Primary School

1985: Head, Sherwood Junior School, Warsop, Nottinghamshire

2005-10: General secretary, NAHT

Family: Married to Karen, also a headteacher, with whom he has two grown-up daughters. He also has a son Jamie, and a granddaughter, Millie, two.

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