Profile - The quiet confidence and commitment that persuaded a union to see the Lightman

15th January 2010 at 00:00
Incoming ASCL general secretary Brian Lightman will bring an esteemed reputation and cross-border experience to the role in September. But he isn't planning a revolution, finds Darren Evans, just some subtle changes to make heads' lives easier

Often when Brian Lightman leaves his adopted home of Wales, it is in a caravan with his wife for one of their favoured trips around Europe.

But come September, he will leave the country - and the headship of St Cyres School, near Cardiff - for a new home in England and the top job at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

Mr Lightman takes over as general secretary of the 14,000-strong union from John Dunford, who will leave after 12 years in charge. Quite what situation he will inherit will partly depend on what happens in the general election, expected in May.

ASCL has built close links with the current Government through its role in the social partnership, but it also has the ear of Michael Gove, the Conservative shadow schools secretary.

But Mr Lightman, not surprisingly, says he is confident that the union will develop a good relationship with whichever party is in power.

"The social partnership is bound to be reviewed by whoever wins the election," he says. "The signs we have at the moment are that the Conservatives are very keen to listen to us. They may have other ways of working but that doesn't mean they don't want to listen."

Whatever happens politically, Mr Lightman will fight against schools being held increasingly responsible for all of the "ills of society".

"It's very easy to blame schools for everything," he says. "We can only do so much."

Mr Lightman will also endeavour to make headship a more attractive proposition in a bid to overcome the looming leadership shortage - a problem he will have to help his own school overcome in the coming months.

Potential heads fear a culture of over-accountability, Mr Lightman says. As well as improved pay and working conditions, he wants a better understanding and appreciation from Government and the general public about what the job entails.

Heads should be left to "get on with the job" without political interference, he adds.

"Being a school leader is a tremendous job, very satisfying and worthwhile, but people often expect too much of heads," he says. "It's incredibly important for the health of our education system to make sure headship is a really attractive proposition for anybody thinking of going into it.

"We must celebrate and spread the good practice that is going on in schools to attract the best and the brightest to the top jobs."

Unusually for a union leader, Mr Lightman brings first-hand experience of teaching in both England and Wales. For the last 10 years he has been head of St Cyres School in Penarth, an 11-18 comprehensive of more than 1,500 pupils.

Supporters say his experience of both countries' education systems will bring a unique perspective to his new role at ASCL.

Mr Lightman's time at St Cyres has coincided with Welsh devolution and he has played an important part in the Assembly government's vision of reshaping Wales as the "learning country" by piloting the skills-led Welsh Baccalaureate qualification.

ASCL is pushing for the introduction of a more general 14-19 diploma in England to better address vocational issues, and Mr Lightman's experience of piloting the Welsh Bac has given him an insight into how the diploma could be improved.

Instead of replacing traditional academic qualifications, the Welsh Bac is run alongside GCSEs and A-levels, which Mr Lightman says gives students a broader experience that makes them more attractive to potential employers.

"Diplomas have been a way of bringing that depth, but they have been very complicated to implement," he says. "People have got to be convinced that they are a suitable alternative and that's a bit of a gamble.

"We need to make sure that as many students as possible can have access to the diplomas. It would be very simple to develop the Welsh Bac to a model that can be used in England.

"At St Cyres the Bac has transformed our sixth-form ethos and provision in a very positive way and given the students a more rounded education."

He also thinks that the two systems can learn from each other in a number of other areas. Wales has abolished Sats, scrapped league tables and introduced tri-level reform, where schools, local authorities and the Government work closely with each other to share best educational practice.

England, meanwhile, has seen many generously funded developments in IT and introduced proactive approaches, such as Teach First, to attract the best graduates into the most challenging schools.

Mr Lightman, who was born and educated in London and taught at several schools in England before moving to Wales in 1995, paid tribute to Dr Dunford and admitted he would be a "tough act to follow".

Dr Dunford is known for being a consummate networker and his opinion is regularly canvassed by ministers who know they need to keep ASCL members on-side if policies are to be successfully implemented.

Always at the end of a phone for journalists, he has also enjoyed considerable success in building the union's public profile with a sound bite never far from his lips.

"John is enormously respected, and understandably so, because he's incredibly knowledgeable and a very good communicator," Mr Lightman says.

"He is always able to offer solutions; he gives good advice and speaks his mind. I will be inheriting from him an organisation that's in an extremely healthy state."

Mr Lightman will not make his case by shouting the loudest. He has won the respect of colleagues with a quiet confidence and absolute commitment to the job.

But that is not to say he is afraid to challenge authority. He is unfazed by government ministers and has enjoyed putting them on the spot at previous ASCL conferences.

Indeed, at one event Mr Lightman showed he has already learned one of the teaching unions' favourite tricks for an easy headline - criticising television programmes for their impact on pupils.

In this case he singled out school drama Waterloo Road, which he said would give pupils the impression that bad behaviour is acceptable.

Although he wants to bring his own ideas to the role, Mr Lightman isn't planning a revolution.

A member of the union for 20 years, he has been on its council since 1998 and was the association president in 200708.

"Having been very much involved in the development of ASCL policy over the last couple of years, you wouldn't expect me to come in with a mandate to change everything," he said.

"I am coming in at a time when we have younger members joining us and more people who are in different roles like business managers.

"Hopefully I can bring in a different experience that builds on what's happened so far."

As a fan of new technology, Mr Lightman is keen to change the way ASCL interacts with its members.

He is already looking into new forms of communication to keep in touch with members, and plans to consult on the use of online forums and social-networking websites such as Twitter.

"The job of school leader has changed and ASCL will need to develop over the next five to 10 years to adapt to those changes," he concludes.


- Born in London in 1955, Brian Lightman was educated at Westminster City School and Southampton University where he graduated with BA (Hons) in German.

- He completed a PGCE in German and French before starting his teaching career in 1979 at a comprehensive in Crawley, West Sussex.

- He went on to become head of modern languages and then head of sixth form at a comprehensive in Surrey before taking up a deputy headship at a secondary school in Essex.

- Mr Lightman gained an MA in education from the Open University in 1993 and in 1995 became head at Llantwit Major School, south Wales.

- With his wife Eva he has four children aged between 19 and 27. His eldest daughter Rebecca has followed in her father's footsteps by gaining a degree in German, and she now teaches German and French at a school in Reading.

- Mr Lightman's interests include walking, cycling, listening to music and taking caravan holidays throughout the UK and Europe with his family.

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