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What's up, prof?

Chris Woodhead criticised him for having too many ideas. Undeniably, he is a production line of initiatives. Neil Levis meets Tim Brighouse

There are three tales about Tim Brighouse circulating among teachers in the Midlands. The first asserts that a delegation of heads approached him to take the Birmingham job in 1993 when he was professor of education at Keele.

Not true, he says, although there is some basis for the story. After four years, he was not totally happy as an academic. He had made his reputation during the 11 years he ran Oxfordshire's schools from 1978. "Keele was another valuable but half-wrong turning," he reflected later. "I think I got far more out of them than they did out of me - I felt a bit like a PE teacher in a grammar school."

He didn't like the administrative chores of university and missed the buzz of running a large office and visiting schools. "While I was at Keele, I knew I needed to take on an urban education authority. The fact that Birmingham came up for me was like manna from heaven."

He had already applied for the job when he addressed a pre-arranged meeting of Catholic heads in the city who asked him how he would stem the numbers of schools opting out of Birmingham education authority. As he told his political masters later at the real interview: "I'd make them realise what they were missing." There's a self-belief bordering on arrogance about the man that you obviously need if you are running the largest education authority in the land.

The second Brighouse story concerns the week he started the job. The city-centre office at Margaret Street was frantically trying to find him because he hadn't turned up. When he did surface a week later, it was to declare he had spent his first few days visiting schools to find out what was going on.

That love of being close to the action persists today, eight years later. His enthusiasm for good teachers - and for pupils - is engaging. Every week he pops into schools and quite often comes away with a commitment that someone with less energy would balk at. In a tough school last year, he met "a human dynamo" of a Year 6 teacher determined that her pupils' postcode would not deny them the chance of success. Brighouse later started emailing her about their progress and sending the children a weekly letter in which he deliberately introduced mistakes in spelling and grammar. "Pen-palling with literacy intent" he called it, and a new idea was born for others in the city to play their part in raising pupil standards. He is a whirlwind of ideas and is always ready to respond to others' innovations.

He is very approachable and seems to touch the lives of the many teachers he meets. He has the ability to command attention without seeking to hog the limelight. Staff talk about the personal detail he puts into the Christmas cards he writes by hand every year. And his quarterly column in the authority's education bulletin is littered with stories from his travels around schools that reveal he is getting as much from the experience as the teachers on the frontline.

The third Brighouse tale is that he and Ted Wragg, TES columnist and professor of education at Exeter, dreamt up the idea of targt-setting on the back of a beer-mat when Wragg was chairing a commission into education in Birmingham at the start of Brighouse's time there. (See Wragg's verdict below).

Almost true. The two did construct the notion that schools should be judged against their own "previous best" performance but, famously, Birmingham was then slammed by Ofsted for not giving schools targets that were specific enough.

Which brings us to that crucial time in 1997 to 1998 when Brighouse put his head in the lion's mouth by volunteering the authority to be the first inspected by Chris Woodhead and his team.

"I knew they'd get to us eventually," he says. "I also thought it was best to get there when I thought we knew more about running local authorities than they did. And I think that was a right decision."

Even so, the period is a painful memory for Brighouse. In the Educational Journal, he described the Orwellian scene when, following leaks in the press from both sides about the various drafts of the report, the lead inspector turned up for a meeting unexpectedly accompanied by a senior colleague and three others.

"The heavy mob it seemed had come to town. I pinched myself to make sure I was in Birmingham and not our sister city, Chicago. 'I am instructed,' said a senior member of their party, 'not to answer any of your questions, nor to respond to anything you have to say. This is an abnormal situation. We are prepared to listen to anything you may tell us by way of what you believe to be factual error, or your suggestions that judgements are not based on evidence. We shall listen, of couse, but we shall not respond.' " Brighouse knew his head was on the block. Although there was much in the report that praised Birmingham - how could there be anything else for an authority whose advisory services would be singled out as an example of good practice in the Excellence in Cities White Paper, and would subsequently be asked to tender to provide support for struggling Bristol and Islington? - Brighouse felt that Woodhead was out to get him. But then David Blunkett rode to the rescue with a press release of fulsome praise for Birmingham's work.

There is an instructive story from the uncomfortable time the two protagonists spent together as joint vice-chairmen on the standards task force. They leave one particularly acrimonious meeting only to bump into each other again on the journey home and start to talk.

Woodhead volunteers that he is not particularly impressed by the politicians they are dealing with.

"The trouble with you," says Brighouse, "is that you really do know all the answers, don't you?" "That's right," says Woodhead. "Everything is very easy and straightforward. You know that, surely?" "No, I don't," replies Brighouse. "I'm a teacher and what I'm good at is asking the questions. That's my job - and that is the difference between us."

Today, his headaches are the concerns that preoccupy many other chief education officers: post-16, trying to arrest the decline in pupil performance after their transfer from primary to secondary schools, a solution for white working-class sink estates but, above all, finding enough teachers to fill the city's schools.

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