The teachers' champion takes his final bow

14th September 2007 at 01:00
He inspired people in schools in a career that was never dull, but Tim Brighouse is now calling it a day. He tells David Marley why he's going

reflecting on a career that has spanned five decades, Tim Brighouse has unending enthusiasm for the power of teaching.

The man credited with turning around education in Birmingham and, most recently, working as the schools tsar for London is a powerhouse of ideas.

It will not be clear to anyone who speaks to him, but what Professor Brighouse now lacks, he insists, is the energy to put those ideas into practice. At 67, he is retiring from the heart of the national education scene. "I have enjoyed everything I have done but I have become exhausted," he says. "I'm deeply conscious of not having the same energy. Unless I'm working flat out I feel like a bit of a charlatan."

Since first qualifying as a history teacher in the 1960s, Professor Brighouse has enjoyed a public career for more than 30 years.

He was the youngest chief education officer in the country when he took over in Oxfordshire while still in his thirties. He became the oldest when he assumed the same role in Birmingham in his fifties.

He has been praised by teachers, yet vilified by critics, including an extraordinary episode in which he was labelled a "nutter" by the Conservative education secretary John Patten in 1993. He successfully sued and with damages he was awarded set up the charity University of the First Age which aims to raise aspirations of the young.

"That happened just before I started in Birmingham, so I was notorious when I arrived," he says. "But Birmingham was the best time for me. It was just magically good."

The city was languishing near the bottom of the GCSE league tables when Professor Brighouse took over but will rank close to the top third this year. "There were fantastic teachers there, and most were up for the transformation," he says. "I just had to harness that."

Sir Robert Dowling, head of George Dixon International School in Birmingham, said working with Professor Brighouse was an inspiration. "He had a dogged belief that everyone could achieve excellence and combined that with great humour," he says.

His appearances in the staffroom became famous not only for his whirlwind of ideas but also for his somewhat chaotic appearance. One school caretaker accosted the director of education because he thought he was a burglar.

On another visit, a teacher insisted on brushing his hair in a bid to get it back under control. "His shambolic approach endeared him to people," says Sir Robert.

Estelle Morris, who worked with Professor Brighouse as education secretary and as a Birmingham MP, says the Government should have involved him more in its first term.

"He is just the most brilliant man," she says. "The likes of Tim and Ted Wragg were before their time. History will show they led the way in raising aspirations for children. There is not a teacher who can't tell you a story of professional encouragement and personal kindness." Birmingham provided the backdrop for a battle of educational values between Professor Brighouse and Chris Woodhead, then chief inspector of schools. One Ofsted report on Birmingham schools, during the time when Mr Woodhead was in charge, said that improvements were needed. Another in 2002, after he had left, held up the city as an example of what city schools could achieve.

"Chris is about enforcing compliance and publicly blaming those who fail," he says. "Labour was guilty of the same mindset, but that is changing. The huge change that has happened is that education used to be about failing children at 11, 16 and 18. Now we celebrate success."

His support for teachers continued when he became commissioner of London schools in 2003. What was more difficult in a city the size of London was maintaining the personal touch. He is a dedicated writer of notes and letters of praise to teachers.

Although he claims not to have fitted in as an academic at Keele University "like a PE teacher in a grammar school" a number of books have followed and there is more writing in the pipeline.

He still speaks with a passion, inspiring teachers' intellectual curiosity with his own.

"My career has been a privilege," he says. "People talk about work-life balance, but if you are working at something that is your life, you are fantastically lucky."

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