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John Dunford: How I put secondary heads on the map

John Dunford has used his flair for publicity to give the secondary heads an organisation that is taken seriously in government circles. Richard Garner hears how he did it

Within a week of taking office John Dunford had put his own stamp on the way the secondary head teachers' union operated. Until 1998, the Secondary Heads Association, as it was then known, had operated more on the lines of a genteel club, preferring to beaver away behind the scenes seeking to be "quietly influential".

But seven days after becoming general secretary, Dunford was attracting the headlines. He achieved this miraculous feat by adding a couple of quotes criticising two of the Spice Girls in the president's annual welcoming address. This high media profile has continued during his 12 years at the helm and has had an important effect on his organisation. It has won him and what is now known as the Association of School and College Leaders access to the corridors of power under New Labour.

Tomorrow, he will attend his last conference with his stature as the elder statesman of the teachers' organisations confirmed. Dunford is constantly being sought out for advice over policy by government ministers.

He will deliver his swansong speech on Sunday – and there are one or two topics he would like to give the Government (and any successor government) food to think about. First, he is concerned about the small matter of the way the Government runs the country. "Do you know that, on average, a Secretary of State only lasts for 2.2 years?" he asks.

"I know that because I've counted all the pictures of them on the wall (at the Department for Children, Schools and Families) and divided the number of years they cover by the faces during boring meetings. It's the sort of thing as a former maths teacher that I do. It's ridiculous. Since I took office, there have been six Secretaries of State and eight Schools Ministers.

"If a school had that record for turnover of heads and deputies, no parent in their right mind would send their children to it. Mark Carlisle, who became the first Secretary of State under the Thatcher government, said afterwards: 'I could never understand why I was appointed as neither I nor my children had ever used the state system'.

"I don't know how Prime Ministers do reshuffles – it has always seemed from the educational viewpoint as if the original choice on the back of an envelope got changed half way through the process."

He would like to see the appointment of a Chief Education Officer – along the lines of Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson – who can advise on policy issues and prepare the education service for what to do in time of crisis. It would, he argues, help to depoliticise education, a process that has led to what he calls one of the "low points" of the last 12 years: too many initiatives.

The profession needs more stability, he says. So, what does he think about Conservative plans for a radical overhaul of the education system and the setting up of Swedish-style independent "free" schools which could be run by parents? He is doubtful that many parents would want to do this.

Declining to say who he will support in the general election, he says the history of his years in office and as a head teacher shows show there are more "continuities than discontinuities" with a change of political control.

He concedes that it looks as though a switch to the Conservatives would lead to the discontinuities outweighing the continuities as a result of their reform package. "In 2010 it will feel there are more discontinuities," he says. "In 2013, I suspect we will look back and find there have been more continuities.

"The idea of parents running schools – I suspect they will not be able to afford that and I think there will be very few of them that want to go down that road. We need a period of stability and no more change than is absolutely necessary."

Dunford lists as his successes a switch from a culture of competition between schools with the introduction of league tables to more collaboration, with schools going into partnership to help their struggling neighbours. He also chalks up good funding for schools after years of restraint on spending and the scrapping of national curriculum tests for 14-year-old. The latter, he says, is "a negative rather than a positive achievement".

On the debit side, there have been increasing numbers of heads being sacked because of poor league table showing, too many initiatives (again) and the rejection of the report by former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson calling for an overarching diploma to embrace academic and vocational qualifications. That decision removed the chances of the two being held in equal esteem.

As for the future, apart from his call for a Chief Education Officer to be appointed at national level, he would like to see more trust placed in the professionals. "Doctors and head teachers are held in the highest esteem by members of the public, polls show," he says. "It's ironic that politicians – who have one of the lowest rankings – should seek to control them."

Dunford has chosen his time to go carefully. He is 63, so could stay on for another two years but he judged that this year was a good time to hand over the reins because of the general election. He will be replaced in September by the Welsh secondary school head teacher Brian Lightman. In future, he plans to serve on a number of educational bodies. Asked if he intends to work as hard as he has been doing, a look of horror comes over his face. "No," he says.

Let's hope he is able to eat well in retirement. The secondary heads leader has a reputation as a gastronome and is often asked for advice on the quality of restaurants in conference resorts. Dunford would be admirably suited to write a restaurant guide. Given his flair for publicity, he would be good at promoting it, as well.