The new leader of the National Association of Head Teachers has three wishes for Christmas - ones he would be happy to share with the Education Secretary, Jill Parkin reports
When Mick Brookes resigned his headship after 20 years, he left a gap at the Nottinghamshire primary school that could not be filled. Not for several months, anyway.
"Our school was one of the 20 per cent that failed to appoint a new head when the post was advertised last year," says the new general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. "I resigned in April and the new head won't start until January."
Mr Brookes is fresh from the coalface - not that there are too many of those left in Nottinghamshire - and he brings almost 30 years of headship experience to his job as the leader of the union. Until just a few months ago he was dealing with the major issues, such as recruitment, school inspection, inclusion, funding and PPA, from his desk at Sherwood junior school in Warsop, a former mining village near Mansfield. Education is an immensely personal issue to him.
"I want to see the NAHT position itself as an independent union again. I think we've been too close to the Government line," says Brookes, whose predecessor David Hart was in the job for 27 years. "And this Government isn't working with the unions. What happened to that euphoria ofMay `97? Where has that gone? How has this Government managed to lose the trust and confidence of school leaders?"
The questions are rhetorical. Like any other head, Brookes knows how that trust vanished and he has a few good ideas about how it could be regained.
He doesn't hesitate when asked what would be top of his list if Education Secretary Ruth Kelly turned Christmas fairy and offered him three wishes.
The first comes directly from his time as head, when inspectors looked at his school's proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals (around 20 to 25 per cent) and classed it as "a leafy lane school". In fact, he says, there were people in that village who were simply too proud to claim the meals, and the figure should have been at least 35 per cent.
"We had a quarter of the national average of parents with higher education, and a high unemployment rate. With 80 per cent at level four in Sats, we were doing incredibly well.
"But the inspection system is punitive, not helpful. So I'd ask for a change in the culture of inspection so it could be welcomed by heads as a positive, professional contribution to school improvement. We will not solve the recruitment problem among heads while the Government is saying if a school goes into special measures the head will be sacked."
The hot potato of main-streaming children is one every head in the land is dealing with these days and it is strongly linked to Brookes's second wish, for more school funding, to bring government expenditure at least into line with our partners in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
"Inclusion is a minefield we need to clear. In some parts of the country, dogma has overtaken common sense. There are pupils who are placed in mainstream classrooms who actually desperately require the expertise and context of a special educational setting.
"There needs to be a really full assessment of a pupil's needs in order to have an intelligent conversation with parents about what the best context is for the child. It doesn't have to be one or the other. There are inreach programmes, where some time is spent in a mainstream setting and some time in a pupil referral unit or special school.
"We need to bear in mind that having a pupil with complex special needs in a class of 30 can draw support away from those pupils who, with a little extra
input, could go the extra mile. Inclusion into mainstream is very expensive. If it's done properly, it costs far more than it does in a special school where you can have five or six children with a certain condition put together. Very often far more can be done to meet their needs than if they are scattered over two, three, four or five schools. Of course, appropriate inclusion that is properly funded and properly supported can have positive spin-offs, not least in the compassion and kindness aroused in other children."
The funding problem runs through many educational issues, says Mr Brookes, not just in terms of how much but also of how it is spent. Among his union's members are heads of academies and of Sure Start centres, and Brookes concedes that they do well for their pupils, but questions whether it is at the expense of other comprehensives or early-years centres nearby.
"These issues need a cold, calm look," he says. "If some money had been spent on improving existing provision, that might have been a more streamlined approach."
Third on Mr Brookes's wish-list comes a reduction in the pressure on heads, the major cause of all those re-advertisements in the jobs pages. "The Government needs to manage change so that school leadership teams are not driven into the ground. Work- related stress now accounts for 38 per cent of headteacher absence, a rise of 36 per cent in a year.
"I have never known there to be such derision out there. People are now saying the job is impossible, what with restructuring, with TLRs, PPA time, which has increased our members' workload exponentially, and a short-notice inspection system that feels like the sword of Damocles.
"This is old Victorian-style management, which simply depresses the workforce. It's up to the Government to have a change of heart. They can manage education without the support of the NAHT, but without it they won't achieve the cutting edge we need if we are to have a world-class education service. For that you need a confident and buoyant workforce."
It was Brookes's inside knowledge of that workforce which led to him challenging the official candidate for general secretary for the job earlier this year.
Incensed that there were no school leaders on the union's official shortlist for the job - Mr Brookes was one of the original applicants - he used trade union law to beat the headhunted official candidate David Hawker, director of education at Brighton and Hove. He forced a vote of members and won by 8,863 to 4,374, using, according to David Hart, legislation originally brought in to limit Arthur Scargill's power in the National Union of Mineworkers, possibly a little something Brookes picked up on during his Nottinghamshire period. Rather deliciously, Hart, who favoured the official candidate, used to be a solicitor. Indeed the NAHT was originally one of his clients. His comment? "That is Mick Brookes's right and he has exercised that right."
Mr Brookes, who was president of the NAHT in 2000, has a 29-year-old son and a two-year-old granddaughter. He commutes weekly between NAHT headquarters in Haywards Heath, West Sussex, and Nottinghamshire, where his wife, Karen, is a head. She has two daughters, one at university and one who is training to be a teacher. He is immersed in education and the future of the country's children.
"Education is becoming progressively less child-centred and we need to reverse that. One of the main reasons young people leave school at 16 is because they don't feel they are cared for. Most of them are kids deemed by the system to have failed because of Sats performance at key stage 1, 2 and 3. The other problem is the academic nature of the curriculum. If school fails them, they will go for support to a sub-culture and that's bad news for all of us."
The NAHT has more than 30,000 members, including most special school headteachers, 85 per cent of all primary school headteachers and more than 40 per cent of all secondary school headteachers. It was a measure of the disaffection felt by heads that the NAHT pulled out of the workload agreement on May 16, says Mr Brookes. "That was a very, very serious decision. And if anything the position has hardened since then."
He wonders what more is to come from a Government that promised three times over to make education a priority. And one of his fears will cause jaws to drop, even in a profession where drop-jaw is an almost permanent condition.
"I just wonder," he says. "The agenda feels pretty bleak for the primary sector. Reading the runes, I just wonder if the complacent response to the Howson report on the 28 per cent of primary headships unfilled was because the game plan is to delete the post.
"Put together the lack of government response to Howson and the notion of federations of schools, and you start to see a scenario where the primaries are brought under the control of the secondaries.
"Of course, we don't know. And we can't know because the Government isn't prepared to work with the unions."
But, with Mr Brookes at the helm, are the unions likely to become more powerful by working with each other? "Close to the heart-beat of the Union"; "visionary leader" are just two of the accolades he quoted in his election manifesto. And John Dunford, general secretary of SHA, believes Brookes' appointment is the beginning of a new era of co-operation between the two unions.
When Mick Brookes first arrived at Sherwood junior school, near Mansfield, parents greeted the man from Surrey with a great deal of Midlands suspicion, expressed in the broadest of broad accents.
"At the beginning, some of them spoke as broad as they could to make it difficult for me. Once they realised what I was about and that I was committed, we began to understand each other," he smiles.
"And now it's a school that people from outside the area want to send their children to."
He's hoping to get a similar working relationship going with the Government, if the language problem can be overcome.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE NAHT'S NEW HEAD
* Head boy at Fullbrook county secondary school in West Byfleet, Surrey, leaving in 1966.
* Plays bass guitar for a band called The Rockets.
* Teaching certificate at King Alfred's college in Winchester.
* Started teaching with a year at Kanes Hill primary school in Southampton.
* A year on an Israeli kibbutz.
* His next year divided between being a paraffin salesman in Chiswick and a counsellor at Camp Blue Star in North Carolina.
* Returned to teaching with a job at Liss county junior school, Petersfield, Hampshire.
* BA from the Open University in 1975.
* Deputy head of Gosberton primary, near Spalding, in 1976.
* Track record as campaigner starts in Lincolnshire in 1978, with his membership of action group For Education Now (FEN) formed to fight budget cuts and closure of teachers' centres in Lincolnshire.
* His first headship at Gosberton Clough and Risegate primary, 1978-1985.
* Head of Sherwood junior school, taking on various NAHT stints, both locally and nationally, coming to prominence with his appointment as president in 2000-2001.
* Led the successful rebellion to quit the workload agreement, against the advice of his predecessor, David Hart.
* Took an MA in education at Nottingham university in 1992.
* 2005: appointed general secretary of the NAHT.
MICK THE MAN
Lives during the week in a converted lunatic asylum just outside Haywards Heath.
Rides a 1,000cc Honda Firestorm motorcycle.
Describes himself as a people and policy person.
Took an MA in education at Nottingham university in 1992.
Believes that one of his great strengths is being a school leader himself.
Dances One of the best moments of the NAHT conference - a month after the election bitterness- was the sight of Brookes gyrating across the platform to Elton John's "I'm Still Standing".