From politics to 'nice guy'

11th February 2005 at 00:00
A spell as a teaching assistant has transformed the Blair adviser who coined the phrase 'bog-standard comprehensive'. Michael Shaw reports

The man who coined the phrase "bog-standard comprehensive" to describe secondary schools is now urging the Government to treat teachers better, after undergoing a change of heart at the chalkface.

Peter Hyman, a former speech writer for Tony Blair and head of Downing Street's strategic communications unit, spent a year working in an inner-city comprehensive.

But his experiences as a teaching assistant at Islington Green school in north London have changed his views on how ministers should handle education.

Since starting at the school in 2003, Mr Hyman has had to handle a detention room full of disruptive pupils, hostility from some of the school's staff, and a teenager who attempted to climb out of a window.

In a book about his experiences, to be published next week, he calls on his old government colleagues to stop trying to micro-manage schools.

"I am beginning to see how teachers feel like a circus act having random objects hurled at them by a ringmaster and being expected to catch them all," he writes. "Why can't politicians acknowledge that those on the front line might know more?"

Mr Hyman admits that he is partly to blame for the Government's decision to focus on novelty and momentum to give people the impression that ministers always have something new to announce.

Education announcements did not take the school calendar into account, he said, and "often appeared random and sometimes contradictory".

"So schools would face pronouncements on uniform, on healthy food, on homework or drugs testing and would not know how seriously to take them, not knowing if they would result in legislation or were merely ministerial thoughts."

As an example, he looks at the Government's criticism of "tipping-out" - letting pupils out of the school grounds during the lunch break.

At Islington Green he found it was unrealistic to scrap the practice: there was too little room in the school canteen and pupils usually behaved well off-site.

"The first implication is that schools are releasing children out of stupidity," he said.

"Now that I'm seeing it from the school's perspective, I'm wondering why ministers even bother to mention such micro issues other than to show they are 'in touch' with voters."

Mr Hyman praises Trevor Averre-Beeson, Islington Green's headteacher, drawing flattering comparisons between him and Tony Blair.

But he is critical of teaching unions, warning that they threaten to undermine the work of forward-thinking headteachers.

Mr Hyman clashed with Islington Green's National Union of Teachers representative, a relationship which worsened when he was put in charge of the campaign to gain academy status for the school.

He is broadly supportive of academies but the former government adviser is surprisingly frank about their potential pitfalls.

He paints a none-too-flattering picture of one of his school's would-be sponsors and includes a comment by Mr Averre-Beeson comparing one London academy to a prison.

Mr Hyman said of academies: "What looked exciting and creative from Westminster seemed like a lot bigger gamble at school level.

"For pound;2 million, small change for some very wealthy individuals, the sponsor was effectively buying the school."

He concludes that all schools with good heads should be given the freedom of academies and that changes to admissions are needed to ensure that comprehensives such as Islington Green have more balanced intakes.

Mr Hyman is now considering training as a teacher and says he is unlikely to return to politics.

He took a substantial pay cut when he changed jobs, and now earns a classroom assistant's wage with a bonus for his work as an adviser to the school's senior management team. Some of the profits from his book will go to Islington Green.

Ken Muller, the NUT representative at Islington Green who features prominently in the book, said teachers had initially been suspicious of Mr Hyman.

"We felt he was going to be a spy," he said. "But to be honest he's come over as quite a nice guy - he's never shown off or thrown his weight around."

A Downing Street spokesman was unable to say whether the Prime Minister would read the book. "He hasn't said anything about it," he said.


1 Out Of 10: From Downing Street Vision to Classroom Reality is being published on Thursdayat pound;7.99 Platform 21, see review in next week's FRIDAYMAGAZINE

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