Back to school with a bump: Britain's headteachers' associations on spending cuts, Coalition plans and boycotts

Two heads are better than one, or so the saying goes. Nowhere could that be better put to the test at the moment than in the education world, as both of the country's leading headteacher organisations prepare to start the academic year with a new leader at the helm.

One of the two has not actually been a headteacher himself. Russell Hobby, the 38-year-old general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) raised eyebrows by being headhunted from the world of management consultancy (he was with Hay Group). He is, however, now a leader of heads, and it is not the first time that his union has moved outside of education to finds its chief. His predecessor but one, David Hart, was a lawyer by trade.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), though, has gone down a more traditional path, appointing 55-year-old Brian Lightman, headteacher of a 1,400-pupil comprehensive school in Wales and a member of their ruling council for the past two years. It will certainly be a testing time for them both.

They will be in at the start of the schools revolution planned by Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, who wants a massive boost to the academies programme. The new academies will be free from local authority control, and heads will be able to run their affairs. Gove also wants to see the opening of Swedish-style "free" schools run by parents, teachers and faith groups. Here, at least, he will have a measure of support from the two new incumbents – even if it is cautiously worded.

"Schools have a very ambivalent attitude towards freedom," says Hobby. "They both want it and fear it at the same time. Our position is that if a school decides it's the right thing to do, then we will support them through it. With freedom, you can choose how you use it. Schools don't have to be isolationist and competitive with it, you can be co-operative and socially responsible towards your neighbours."

Lightman says ruefully: "It has been fascinating to see how the whole education landscape has completely changed since I was appointed to this job – with a new ministerial team and new thinking and a fresh start. We don't have a policy towards any kind of school structure. We represent them all: state secondary schools, independent and colleges. Our advice to members would be to consider all the implications and make an informed decision rather than rush into it." That is why he is unconcerned that Gove appeared to end up with egg on his face after telling Parliament that 1,100 schools had applied for academy status in June, only to reveal the following month that the figure was just 153.

A more gradual build-up would be preferable, Lightman argues. As for "free" schools, he does not see them as an issue as he does not expect more than a dozen proposals for them to come forward. Earlier attempts by John Major's government to encourage parents to run schools met with little response.

It will not all be plain sailing in their dealings with ministers, though. One obvious bone of contention is the national curriculum tests (SATs) in maths and English taken by 600,000 11-year-olds every May. The NAHT joined with the National Union of Teachers in boycotting them this year, as a result of which they had to be cancelled in more than 4,000 primary schools (about 25 per cent of the total).

Since then, Gove has announced there will be a review of the tests, acknowledging there are flaws in the present system. However, he has insisted they will go ahead next year. Hobby says he cannot rule out the prospect of a repeat boycott next year.

Both the NAHT and the NUT will review the situation at the end of September. He says of this year's boycott: "Membership went up as a result – more people joined us so that they could participate in the boycott than left the union. "I would like to avoid [a boycott] and have a relationship with ministers based on dialogue rather than action."

Hobby believes, though, that – were it to come to another boycott – it would be possible to increase boost participation in it from 25 per cent to 50 per cent, thus presenting ministers with a major challenge.

The smart money must be on the two sides failing to reach agreement. One of the unions' main concerns is the use to which the test results are put in fashioning primary school league tables. Again, Gove is adamant that the tests and league tables are here to stay. In any case, the review – no details of which have emerged yet – is almost certain not to be completed in time for any changes to be implemented by next May.

The issue the two unions will have to grapple with as they move towards a decision at the end of September is how much trust they have in Gove's desire for reform.

The other obvious major issue that the two have to tackle is the impact of cuts on education spending. Both concur in the belief that the Government will not be able to protect frontline services if there are to be cuts of between 10 and 20 per cent to education spending.

Lightman reckons that his years of experience as head of a Welsh secondary school – St Cyres in Penarth near Cardiff – has given him a taste of how to handle squeezes in public spending. "I don't think we ever had a budget that was any better than standstill," he says. The principality may have taken a stance at odds with that of its English neighbours of ditching tests and league tables and shunning the idea of academies and "free" schools; but as a backdrop to this it never opted to boost education spending as the Westminister government did under Labour.

"It is going to be a very difficult and challenging time," Lightman says. "We're going to have to do whatever we can to protect the quality of our services and hold the Government to what they've said about protecting frontline services." He predicts that one of the most vulnerable areas is teaching assistants – whose numbers grew under Labour, making it easier for teachers to concentrate on their main task of teaching. He adds, "The trouble is that for many serving school leaders they've operated through their entire period in the context of growing expenditure on education," he says."Coping with contraction is going to be very difficult for them. It requires a different set of skills."

The ASCL will help with training for this – teaching headteachers where to spot possible savings by moving early to not replace staff in non-essential subject areas, so as to reduce any pressure for compulsory redundancies later on.

Hobby if anything fears a bleaker future. "What is the real fear is the impact that cuts will have on support staff," such as classroom assistants and learning mentors, he says. "They are valued members of their communities who can translate things to their communities that middle-class teacher sometimes can't."

He adds: "The worst-case scenario is where a group of headteachers says, 'This is not what I came in to do – I've had some good years, I'm going to retire now.' You could throw the system into turmoil." More than half of headteachers are aged over 50.

As the two leaders take over the reins from their predecessors, they are both acutely aware of the impact that their predecessors had on the education world.

John Dunford, who has headed the ASCL since the turn of this century, managed to transform the association from one which was regarded as a talking shop into an organisation that had considerable impact on government policy. Mick Brookes, the outgoing general secretary of the NAHT, turned his organisation into more of a campaigning outfit – taking action against policies it did not agree with, such as the SATs.

Both incoming leaders are starting off on the road of co-operation with government. Events may see a few potholes emerge on that road over the coming months.

IN WITH THE NEW

Russell Hobby is the new general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. Previously, he was the consultant responsible for handling the education brief at the Hay Management Group. Hobby, aged 38, replaces Mick Brookes, a former primary school headteacher who headed the association for five years. Prior to that, though, the previous incumbent, the long-serving David Hart had no connection with headteaching – he was a lawyer. The NAHT has 36,000 members working in primary, secondary and special schools around the country, and is the only headteachers' organisation to represent state primary school heads. It also has formal links with the Independent Association of Preparatory Schools. Its members include heads, deputies and senior staff involved in the management of schools.

Brian Lightman is the new general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Aged 55, he has just given up the headship of St Cyres school in Penarth, south Wales and has served on the governing body of the ASCL (and its predecssor organisation, the Secondary Heads Association) for 12 years.

The association has a history of appointing serving headteachers to its general secretaryship. His predecessor was John Dunford, who was head of Durham Johnston Comprehensive School before taking up the post. The ASCL has 15,000 members including heads, deputies and senior staff in secondary schools. Members of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents the country's 250 top traditionally boys-only independent schools (such as Eton and Harrow) have automatic membership of it.

OUT WITH THE OLD

John Dunford has had a significant influence on guiding education policy since becoming general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders at the turn of this century. Prior to his appointment he was headteacher of Durham Johnston Comprehensive School – one of the most successful comprehensive schools in the country. He has used the "social partnership" created between the teachers' organisations and Labour to influence the policy agenda. Dunford (pictured above) plans for an active retirement – although he has a reputation as a gourmet knowledgeable about all the best restaurants in conference resorts. It would be surprising if he did not put the information he has gleaned to good effect after leaving his post.

Mick Brookes, who has stood down as general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, has turned the NAHT into a more campaigning union – witness this year's boycott of national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds. Brookes was the headteacher of a primary school – Sherwood in Nottingham, which serves a disadvantaged community – before he took up the post with the NAHT. His two main hobbies are motorcycle riding and playing in a rock band. He plans to celebrate his retirement by going on a charity motorbike ride through South Africa.

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