‘I never knew I would fall in love with school leaders – they inspire me’

19th May 2017 at 00:00
In an exclusive first interview since he was named as the next general secretary of NAHT, Paul Whiteman says his key aim is to push education up the political agenda. Will Hazell meets a self-declared eternal optimist with trade unionism heritage and a passion for representing workers

One of the first things Paul Whiteman does upon arriving at the Tes offices is to marvel at the tiny typeface in a 1910 Tes edition mounted on the wall.

The general secretary-designate of the NAHT headteachers’ union has trade unionism in his blood – his father led his local branch of the National Graphical Association print union and went on to be a full-time union official.

Now his son stands on the cusp of leading one of England’s key education unions – and he’s clearly excited by the prospect. “It’s a fantastic job,” he says enthusiastically. “This is a union of 29,000 working school leaders. You get to articulate their voice on their behalf, in a really important public service.”

As an interviewee, Whiteman is careful, even cautious. But it’s not difficult to see why.

Firstly, he’s understandably reluctant to tread on the toes of Russell Hobby, who remains general secretary until September.

Secondly, when Whiteman was interviewed by Tes there was still the possibility that, despite having the NAHT executive’s backing, he could face a challenge from the membership for the union’s top job.

Recalling what happened with the Association of School and College Leaders – when the executive’s official pick, Chris Kirk, was challenged and beaten by Geoff Barton, a candidate from the grassroots – one can see why Whiteman might be a little circumspect.

Barton is thought to have won because his opponent had never taught, but Whiteman is adamant that his own lack of teaching experience is not a disadvantage.

As the NAHT’s director of representation and advice, with responsibility for advising members on management, legal and employment issues, he says he has gained “a direct and unique insight into what’s troubling NAHT members and school leaders”.

 

Whiteman argues direct school leadership experience is less important for the general secretary role than “the leadership experience I have in the context of a trade union”.

“I’m not being asked to run a school; I’m being asked to run a trade union,” he points out. Whiteman is a professional trade unionist. Growing up in Croydon and going through the south-east London comprehensive system in the 1970s and 1980s (“I’m not sure any of my schools are still standing – nothing to do with me,” he jokes), he left education after his A-levels to take up a job in retail banking.

It was there that he got involved in the Banking, Insurance and Finance Union (now part of Unite).

“That’s really what lit my fire for work within trade unions,” he says, adding in self-deprecating style: “I decided it was better than working for a living – representing your colleagues and articulating their voice.”

While he came from a trade union family, Whiteman says his father’s union career never “weighed heavily upon my shoulders”.

“I wasn’t really attracted to it at all until I was at work and began to feel the issues that all workers feel and turn to their own union.”

His career took him to the FDA union, where he worked for nearly 11 years, representing senior civil servants.

The biggest difference between Whitehall mandarins and school leaders, he says, is “just how vulnerable” heads are.

“A 25-year career and you get one set of results, or something comes up in an Ofsted inspection, and that success just disappears immediately,” he explains.

Whiteman admits that he had a mixed experience of school. “I can’t say I loved school but I didn’t hate it either,” he remembers. And he found himself “outside the headteacher’s office on enough occasions to know what it feels like”.

‘The power of education’

But his belief in “the power of education” was fuelled by an MA in industrial relations and employment law, and that belief contributed to his later decision to join the NAHT and spend much more time in heads’ offices.

It was his admiration for the work of those heads that persuaded him to apply to be general secretary five years later.

He says that his priority, when he takes the helm, will be to raise the profile of education, which he claims too often gets “lost in the noise” and trumped by other public services like the NHS. Unfortunately for Whiteman, the government doesn’t appear to be terribly interested in listening to the education unions on issues ranging from pay restraint to the expansion of grammar schools.

However, his response to this intransigence is not to engage in sabre-rattling.

Asked whether the NAHT could strike as a way of pressuring the government on issues like funding, he replies: “I don’t like really to be drawn on the hypothetical of industrial action...it takes you down a line that is, frankly, unhelpful.”

He points out that the union has only been on a national strike once in its 120-year history – “and let’s hope we never have to do it again,” he adds.

Whiteman says he’s “forever an optimist” and that the government’s recent consultation on primary assessment “shows that even on really difficult subjects, meaningful progress can be made”. “Pragmatism” and “progress” are two words that reoccur throughout the interview. “My standpoint is there’s always progress to be made [in talks with the government],” he says. “It’s about pragmatism and finding a way through.”

No fighting talk

He eschews the adversarial, zero-sum language that can sometimes define relations between trade unions and the government.

“I’m not sure the language of victory and loss takes us anywhere,” he says. “For me, it’s not about victory and loss – it’s about that continued engagement and making progress.”

Whiteman believes that the NAHT can make further headway by treating the public like adults and clearly setting out the facts on issues like funding.

“If you trust parents and the electorate to listen to and deal with quite complex arguments, they’re ready to listen,” he insists. “They’re not just up for a soundbite, actually – they’re up for real information.”

Whiteman says that describing himself as a “steady as we go” candidate “underplays it”, but as a long-standing member of the NAHT’s senior leadership team, it’s clear his captaincy of the union will provide continuity from the tenure of Hobby, rather than marking any radical departure. Asked about the recent vote to amalgamate by the ATL and the NUT teaching unions, he firmly says that “mergers aren’t on my to do list”.

Taking the reins at the NAHT will be the biggest challenge of his professional life, but Whiteman says he will be fuelled by a passion for the members he represents.

“I never knew I would fall in love with school leaders,” he laughs.

“They didn’t love me much when I was coming through the [school] system, I can tell you – but seeing what they do on a dayto-day basis inspires me to do something on behalf of them.”

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