Rocky ride for man at the top

28th April 2006 at 01:00
After a tough first year, the leader of the NAHT finds the future also promises an uphill climb. Phil Revell reports

As he makes last-minute changes to his first conference speech as National Association of Head Teachers' general secretary, Mick Brookes can look back on a tempestuous year.

"It's been a roller-coaster ride," he told The TES. Catapulted from the relative obscurity of leading a Nottinghamshire primary school, Mr Brookes now spars with ministers over education policy. Assemblies may have given way to media interviews, "but the job is still about schools".

His main theme when he speaks on Monday at Harrogate's international conference centre will be the urgent need to support headteachers trying to cope with an increasingly complex job.

"It's a straightforward report based on what I'm being told by our members," he says. "For many heads the situation is becoming intolerable, and the Government is doing very little to help."

He is appalled by government plans to give local authorities a tougher intervention role in schools. Ministers have announced plans to allow local councils to step into poorly-performing schools, with powers to remove the head if necessary.

"It seems that the Secretary of State intends the local authority to be a kind of malevolent beast that will put more pressure on school in between inspections. It's absolutely the wrong direction of travel. What schools need is support," he says.

It is this hands-on experience that made him so attractive to NAHT members, and despite some disparaging comments about his being "just a provincial primary head", he did have experience at the top of the association, having been national president in 2000-01.

In the past six months, he has been getting used to the long drive from his home in Nottinghamshire down to the NAHT's headquarters in Sussex. There has also been a nationwide tour to fit in: 60 branch and regional meetings to gauge what heads want from their association.

Given the tumultuous events in the association in the past couple of years, the meetings were more than necessary to get the union's leadership and membership back on the same wavelength.

Not only had members of the association voted to pull out of the Government's workload agreement - against the advice of the union's then general secretary David Hart and many council members - but it also rejected the official candidate to replace Mr Hart once Mr Brookes had used trade-union law to force a vote on the matter.

The candidate, David Hawker, was head of children's services in Brighton, and many grassroots NAHT members had wondered why a leadership union with 40,000 members could not find a suitable candidate from within its ranks.

Mr Brookes' meetings with heads have hammered home a clear message. "We need to move towards a new approach from government," he says. "They could start by treating the people doing the job with respect, rather than wanting to bin them."

He points out that many local authorities have shed their advisory teams, retaining a few key senior officers whose role is to monitor and evaluate rather than support. The result is that many are unable to offer the kind of advice and assistance that was available in the past.

"Who do heads turn to if their school faces difficulties?" he asks. "They can't talk to the local authority, they can't talk to Ofsted."

The result, he says, is a situation in which heads with problems struggle alone. Some will succeed, but others will find the problems intractable.

Their schools slide further into difficulties, often at great personal cost to the struggling headteacher.

"If we want to see fewer schools in difficulties, we have to have systems in place to support heads," he says. "It's about honesty - kids are dishonest because they are afraid of the consequences of owning up. If schools are honest in their Ofsted evaluation forms, they could be writing themselves into special measures. And what happens then? They get plastered all over their local newspaper, and ministers call for them to be sacked."

One of the additional pressures facing heads is the move towards extended schools offering a dawn-till-dusk service for families and children.

Earlier this year, a survey revealed that heads were supportive of the wider Every Child Matters agenda, in which the focus is on disadvantaged children. But heads had mixed opinions about extended school services.

"There's concern that the agenda seems to have moved away from vulnerable children and towards childcare," he says.

"I offer my congratulations to those heads who are there already, but if the need is being met outside the school, I don't see why heads should come under pressure to provide a service that is already being delivered by other people."

On the key issue that divided the association last year, Mr Brookes is clear that the NAHT made the right decision to pull out of the workload agreement.

"Instead of launching new initiatives, it would have been a good idea for the Government to ensure that the existing ones were fully followed through," he says. "Our primary members think there was a failure to fund planning and preparation time for teachers."

There is still concern about the pressure to use classroom assistants to cover for teachers.

"We are not taking the line where we say, 'Over my dead body.' But we are saying that it should be an appropriate person - someone with appropriate training," he says.

"That doesn't have to be a teacher. Someone with sports coaching qualifications could work with children."

There will be no ministers or senior officials from the Department for Education and Skills in Harrogate, although David Willetts, the Conservative education spokesman, was happy to step into the breach.

"Certainly, it looks like an attempt to isolate us," says Mr Brookes.

"But we can't be isolated, and we have a right to negotiate. If you dare to suggest that ministers have got it wrong, then they don't speak to you.

That's not a good way to run anything - let alone a government."

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