When the wife of a well-known peer visited Marketfield School near Colchester in Essex she was met by a man in Dr Martens boots and jeans, his face covered in dirt.
"I'm looking for the headmaster, not the caretaker," said the lady. "That'd be me luv," replied Gary Smith, who had been cleaning a classroom.
Gary's twin brother Paul has had similar experiences. Sons of an East End docker, both are head teachers of special needs schools at the opposite ends of Essex. They are used to people being taken aback by their undiluted cockney accents and blokeish manner.
"It works in our favour," says Paul, headteacher of Treetops School in Thurrock on the Thames estuary, a few miles downstream form where their dad shifted crates of cargo. "If you don't talk posh people think you are thick and underestimate you."
With a combined total of more than quarter of a century as head teachers behind them, education authorities underestimate the 52-year-old Smith brothers at their peril. Gary fought – and won – a David and Goliath battle against Essex County Council's attempted wholesale closure of special needs schools in the name of inclusion.
These closures were part of a national government campaign to switch special needs children into mainstream schools after the report by Dame Mary Warnock in 1978.
Supporters said handicapped children would do better if they were integrated into society. Critics argued that the campaign was not always in the best interests of special needs children, that it was driven by political correctness and used by penny-pinching officials to shut down schools. The Smith brothers certainly knew where they stood on the issue.
They are fiercely competitive with one another. Gary boasts to Paul about Marketfield's recent flawless Ofsted results, while Paul asks him when he will match Treetops' new site and modern facilities. Both are in the top five per cent of the national "value added" league tables for Key Stage 2 to 4 and beat Essex's much vaunted elite grammar schools – in this section, at least. And they are always striving to do better.
This is why they listened intently when they were invited to a Westminster seminar on the future of special needs schools hosted by Tory education spokesman Michael Gove this month. They heard Gove criticise inclusion and pledge to restore 9,000 special school places lost in recent years. That means building new ones and expanding existing successful ones, which is a policy that the Smiths agree with.
They are impressed by the Tory plan to invite parents to set up schools along the lines of Kunskapsskollen in Sweden – and that they intend to include high-performing special needs schools in the plan. They also like the Tories' promise to reduce bureaucracy.
"We shouldn't have to fill in 10 million forms," says Gary. "Your reputation should speak for itself. We should be able to say 'this is what this child needs. I know because I've been doing this job for 15 years. If we were in the NHS, we'd be senior consultants and people would take our word for it."
It is only in recent years that Gary has been able to concentrate fully on education in Marketfield. He spent a decade just battling to keep it open. "It started in the 1990s," he recalls. "Essex said they were going to close a load of special schools. A handful of powerful education officers in Essex decided to go on an inclusion crusade. They had a single-track dogma that said all children should be in mainstream schools and that special schools weren't nice places. They didn't bother to consult teachers or parents.
"I challenged the director of education when he used one of those political phrases 'I hear what you are saying'. I said to him 'don't you ever tell me you hear what I'm saying when you ain't listening.' We didn't speak much after that."
The director of education is long gone and Gary is still in the head's chair at Marketfield. Instead of closing the school, Essex is now considering expanding it. One nil to the Cockney boys.
Their upbringing on the streets of London turned out to be a useful training for their robust – if unorthodox – confrontations with the education authorities.
One education official was shocked to discover that rude remarks he had made about Marketfield had reached Gary's ears and told him nervously: "I suppose you'd like to settle it outside."
Gary joked back: "Wouldn't take long if I did."
Paul says: "An official came into my school and said 'these children are sitting at desks working quietly, they should all be in mainstream schools.' I said 'They're sitting at desks because we have taught them to. If they were leaping out of windows you'd want to close the school'."
He continues: "Of course, some children with special needs can and should attend mainstream schools, but not all. There has to be a choice."
Gary proudly cites a Marketfield pupil who recently achieved an A* GCSE in science. "He would never have done it in a mainstream school," he says. "He was pretty wild when he came to us."
Although Treetops is in Essex, it is not run by the county council, but by Thurrock unitary authority, for which Paul is grateful because that authority has been very supportive. They admit they owe much of their success to passing the 11-plus and attending East Ham Grammar School for Boys, after which they studied languages at Surrey University. But they like to play up their likely lads image.
Arriving at Westminster before 9am, Gary sent Paul to get some breakfast. When he returned with two croissants, Gary said: "I meant a bacon sarni not a poncey croissant." In fact, Gary's French is so fluent that a French teacher who came for a job was astonished when he conducted the entire interview in French.
While attending an international conference on special needs, he noticed the translator was deliberately distorting the French delegate's contribution. Gary put a stop to it.
If Michael Gove fails to deliver on his special needs education promises he can expect similar direct action from the Smith twins.Reuse content