Straight to the Hart of the matter

David Hart will be a hard act to follow - and he isn't going quietly into retirement. By Richard Garner writes on the union chief's legacy
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The Independent Online

Twenty-seven years ago, when David Hart became general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, Britain was in the throes of the winter of discontent. Public-service workers were taking industrial action, dustbins went unemptied, dead bodies went unburied, and Margaret Thatcher was limbering up to become prime minister.

Twenty-seven years ago, when David Hart became general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, Britain was in the throes of the winter of discontent. Public-service workers were taking industrial action, dustbins went unemptied, dead bodies went unburied, and Margaret Thatcher was limbering up to become prime minister.

Hart remembers being asked to assure senior civil servants that his members would keep schools open during the caretakers' strike. He could not give that assurance. Now, as he leaves office, the spectre of another winter of discontent is looming, this time over the Government's workload agreement.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has pulled out of the agreement, in spite of Hart's advice. They are saying that many schools will just not be able to afford to give their staff the 10 per cent of time off for marking and preparation that is their due from this September. Industrial action is a possibility again. Both incidents show the power that a headteachers' association can wield.

Since 1979, Hart has built the NAHT into one of the most respected and influential of the six teaching organisations. Politicians have time for him, and education correspondents like him. He knows what he thinks and he can make his case forcibly and articulately.

"He is very effective with the Department for Education and Skills," says a fellow union negotiator. "He has got the lawyer's ability to master a brief. He can look through DfES documents and come up with a list of the 27 points that he's unhappy about - and those which he likes." This colleague believes Hart still has influence, although things were beginning to go wrong for him over the workload agreement at the end of his tenure.

A government source pays tribute to his judgement. "He knows when it's the right time to lobby. It's no coincidence that the new funding arrangements for schools [under which they will all get three-year budgets from next year] are very much written to the NAHT's agenda."

David Hart has known and negotiated with 12 Education Secretaries during his general secretaryship. He was closest to Kenneth Baker of the Tories and to Labour's David Blunkett, he believes.

"Kenneth Baker was responsible for the flagship Education Reform Act," he says. "It saw the most significant reform of the past 20 years - the introduction of local management of schools, which gave schools control of their own budgets and saw a radical reform of the relationship between schools and local education authorities."

His one regret is that the NAHT was not more supportive of Blunkett's literacy and numeracy strategies for primary schools, which have been widely praised for introducing the first big rise in English and maths standards since the Second World War.

He is in no doubt as to who was the worst Education Secretary - that is John Patten, who is now in the House of Lords. Patten was in a state of almost permanent war with teachers, and received a bad press. "He was the most disastrous Secretary of State of all time," Hart says. "He was so hamfisted it was unbelievable. The department was run by Baroness Blatch (the Schools minister) while he was there. She was a formidable lady."

He also believes that the Conservatives Mark Carlisle and John McGregor were removed from office by Margaret Thatcher because they were respectively "too left wing" and "too teacher-friendly" for her liking. Kenneth Clarke's heart, he adds, was not in the job. "He wanted one of the four offices of state."

Hart's retirement marks the end of an era. He will address his last conference as the general secretary of the NAHT this weekend.

He will be remembered by many for his mastery of the sound bite. But he was also very good at another aspect of modern communications - the ability to get a story reflecting the views of his organisation placed in the newspapers.

A trained lawyer, he will be a hard act for Mick Brookes, head of Sherwood Junior School, in Warsop, Nottinghamshire, to follow. Not only did he deal single-handedly with media relations, but he also kept a close eye on any legal tangles involving the association. Before he became a full-time employee of the union, he was its legal adviser. So good is Hart at multitasking that there has been speculation that it would take three people to replace him.

Although well liked by journalists, David Hart has never been one to say only what he thinks people want to hear. He sticks to his guns - even if what he has to say is unpopular. For example, he still believes that it was wrong of the NAHT to pull out of the workload agreement, an issue that will resurface at the union's annual conference in Telford this weekend.

"Those who believe we should pull out have a duty to state what the strategy is that would get us back in," he says. At the same time, he acknowledges that many schools will be in real difficulty delivering marking and preparation time for their staff.

"There will be a number of schools struggling - several hundred schools struggling," he says. "I think we could have trouble in some schools: there is not much point in headteachers being martyrs inviting industrial action or other legal action.

"What we need to do is to find out, quickly, those that are in difficulty and talk to them and their local education authorities about what we can do to help them. I can see a winter of discontent if there are significant numbers of schools that simply say, 'We're not going to implement the agreement because we can't do it.'"

He is also worried that some might decide to shut on Friday lunchtime and send the children home early - thus guaranteeing their staff the 10 per cent of time off a week. "It is hardly a good tactic, because it is not going to endear teachers to parents," he says.

Hart is an unashamed supporter of the Blairite education revolution - at a time when the Prime Minister's popularity is waning. "I happen to be a strong supporter of Tony Blair's education philosophy," he says. "There's no comparison between the two parties when it comes to issues such as parental choice and admissions. I'm absolutely sure that the Labour Party is right and the Conservative Party is wrong."

Hart is particularly critical of the Conservatives' plans to give parents passports or vouchers - equivalent to the cost of a state education - to "spend" at the school of their choice. "A marketplace free-for-all would be a disaster," he says.

While acknowledging the concerns that people have about academies - the privately sponsored schools that are replacing struggling inner-city secondary schools - he thinks that Tony Blair genuinely believes in education. And he thinks that Labour's more measured approach to school admissions - with locally agreed codes of practice between schools - is a far better option than the Conservatives'.

This may be his final conference, but David Hart will not be leaving the education world just yet. He'll try to negotiate an end to the impasse over the teachers' workload agreement before his term of office expires in September. One aim in retirement is to spend more time on his horse at home in Cumbria. He really will be riding off into the sunset.