Sci-fi fan counts down to NAHT blast-off

5th February 2010 at 00:00
New general secretary Russell Hobby says lack of frontline experience won't hold him back

Original paper headline: Take me to your leader: sci-fi fan counts down to NAHT blast-off

When Mick Brookes swept to power as general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers in 2005, it was in a blaze of motorcycle leathers and rock guitars.

The former primary head had wooed the membership and fought an exciting election battle to secure the top job.

Anyone looking for similar thrills with his successor may be slightly disappointed.

Management consultant Russell Hobby, who has just been appointed unchallenged, likes nothing better than a night in with a science fiction novel.

In his spare time, the rotund 38-year-old writes his own sci-fi short stories but lacks the confidence to seek a publisher. Of the 4,000 books in his house, many are dusty tomes of management theory.

"There's nothing cool about me," he says apologetically when The TES sat him down to probe his character and educational views.

But while his self-confessed lack of cool will probably fail to trouble members of the NAHT, his lack of direct experience running a school just might.

Could a man more used to flow charts and PowerPoint than staff meetings and assemblies ever really understand heads' problems and talk on their behalf?

The father of two insists he is perfectly placed for the job and makes a convincing case, drawing on a lifetime of contact with hundreds of headteachers.

He first came to admire the unique role of the head aged just eight, when his father was killed in a road accident.

"I remember after my dad's funeral just seeing Mr Peacock, my head, walking into the distance. He didn't want to be seen to be doing the right thing; he was just taking an interest in the lives of his pupils."

The headteacher also gave his widowed mother a job teaching at the school. "Thirty years on it's something that still resonates really strongly," he says.

But it was through his work as head of education at management consultancy Hay Group that he came to appreciate the challenges faced by headteachers and the incredible skills they use to deal with them.

From helping to deliver the Leadership Programme for Serving Heads at the National College, to carrying out research for Hay and the Department for Children, Schools and Families, he has as good an overview as anyone.

"Some of the best managers across the private and state sectors are heads because they have to be flexible and intuitive dealing with so many situations."

As a management consultant, you might expect Mr Hobby to lean to the right politicially, embracing free enterprise and the market-driven model of society.

But he is nothing of the sort. A degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford has led him to hero-worship post-war Labour prime minister Clement Attlee.

"What that government did puts New Labour to shame," he says (his 10-year- old son is named Keir, after Keir Hardie, one of the founding fathers of the Labour movement). But when probed about how his views play out in real life, Mr Hobby seems to live in the middle ground. In his tieless shirt, the former rugby player exudes reasonableness.

"My personal political views are pretty far left wing but I'm a management consultant, for God's sake. As you get older you get a bit more pragmatic and just want to improve things and get things done."

So Mr Hobby, author of The School Recruitment Handbook, has an open-minded attitude to some of the more controversial issues in education.

He says it is easy for schools to be "overawed by superheads" but they still need to have the freedom to pay what it takes to recruit the right headteacher. The "appropriate safeguards" must be in place though, so the system is not abused or used foolishly.

"I'm not averse to private sector involvement, but the market isn't the solution to every problem. People should do things because it's right and important, not just for the incentive," he adds.

Likewise, he supports the academy programme for bringing "new energy" to schools, but says it is wrong for non-educationists to dictate what happens, thinking they know better.

He also has a moderate approach to the trend to federate schools in order to pool resources, boost results and save small schools from closure.

"It's not an easy route to improvement in terms of costs and logistics so it should only be done when you can make it better for the pupils," he says.

You might also expect a management consultant to have a pretty target- driven approach to education, obsessed with measuring outcomes.

But this is far from the case. Mr Hobby believes Ofsted inspectors should write up their reports "blind" without knowing the academic results of the school.

He says: "So much management theory is made up in retrospect. There is a confusion between cause and effect. There's no substitute for getting to know a school."

Politics and management theory aside, what of his approach to his new job, representing the views of thousands of headteachers and school leaders?

He admits he has a "lot of learning to do" and has pledged to undertake an ambitious tour of 50 schools before starting work in September, adding that he cannot wait to find out what is making headteachers really angry. He hopes to continue visiting schools and staying in touch with members on the ground so he does not become seduced by life in the corridors of power.

In general, he says, his are to present the views of all members, have a high public profile and make decisions quickly.

But he will not be drawn on the hot topic of the day - the ballot over a potential boycott of Year 6 Sats. "I haven't been part of the decision- making so far," he said, "but no-one wants to do anything that harms children's education," he adds mysteriously.

Again, he is equally vague about the NAHT's onoff relationship with the social partnership. The association is currently serving an indefinite suspension for opposing a decision on leadership pay.

"We have to ask ourselves, does it make sense for members to be in or out? There is no hard principle - I don't know the answer at the moment. You want to be tough and you want to be able to take a hard line, but you want to be able to know about and influence policy before it is set."

In reasonable comments such as these, the pizzazz of a seasoned pub rocker might be notable by its absence, but then representing the bulk of the nation's head to both public and politicians alike always will demand a heavy dose of quiet diplomacy.

Russell Hobby CV


  • Primary: St Nicolas CofE, Abingdon, Oxfordshire
  • Senior school: John Mason School, Abingdon
  • University: philosophy, politics and economics, Corpus Christi College, Oxford.
    • Career

      • 1993-98: project-managed software development for two IT start-ups
      • 1998: general management consultant, Hay Group
      • 2002: head of education, Hay
      • 2007: head of marketing and research at Hay Group UK.

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