Russell Hobby: 'What looks good on paper won't work in class'

Policies that pander to popular myths about discipline and falling standards will not improve our schools the headteachers' leader tells Richard Garner

Russell Hobby reflects for a moment and confesses to being "a little bit cross" with Michael Gove. It is not the stuff from which dramatic "no confidence" motions emerge, as happened with Health Secretary Andrew Lansley at the nurses' conference earlier this month. But it is enough to predict that the Education Secretary may get a rougher ride when he addresses the National Association of Head Teachers conference on Sunday than he did at the secondary headteachers' conference last month.

"We're more prickly than them," says Hobby, general secretary of what is the only headteachers' organisation to represent the entire gamut of primary, secondary and special schools.

It has form, too. Children's Minister Beverly Hughes was heckled when addressing the conference for Labour three years ago, as opposition to the testing regime in primary schools reached its zenith. The hapless John Patten, widely regarded amongst headteachers to have been one of the worst Education Secretaries, was also sent away with his tail between his legs during the previous Conservative administration.

That won't happen to Gove, even if he does provoke some condemnation from his audience. "I have no doubt of Michael Gove's sincerity," says Hobby, a refugee from the world of education consultancy before taking on his new task at the relatively tender age of 38, "and yes – his belief that he's doing what's right to improve the education system. What I am worried about is his lack of practical management experience. What looks like a good idea on paper doesn't always work out in practice. Some of the phonics ideas – like plans to introduce a phonics screening test for all six-year-olds – will make things worse, not better."

He warms to his theme: "I do get a little bit cross about this Government's policy of playing to popular conceptions about education – particularly around behaviour and discipline." As a result, he argues, they end up producing solutions to a misconception of what is happening on the ground. Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, has said that discipline is only a problem in a handful of schools. "Yet the Government appears to argue that means there is a conspiracy amongst headteachers to hide the problem."

His second concern is over Gove's drive to return to a traditional curriculum on the grounds – spurious, he says – that standards are in decline as heads jettison tougher subjects for courses that will give them a good showing in exam league tables.

"I have a child of 11 and he's doing more advanced things at school than I was doing at his age," he says. "The quality of the books that he's reading, for instance, is higher and that's nothing unusual nowadays. Most people coming out of hospital praise nurses and then say the NHS is a disaster area. It's the same for schools. Parents are generally quite happy with their child's school but think something must be done about the education system as a whole."

Hobby inherited the leadership of the NAHT at a time when it was at loggerheads with the the Government. His predecessor, Mick Brookes, who had risen from the ranks as a former primary school headteacher, had led the NAHT into battle over the national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds. In conjunction with the National Union of Teachers, the union had voted to boycott them, with the result that they were unable to take place in about 25 per cent of schools.

The new government was very much of the frame of mind that "tests are here to stay", but Gove acknowledged there were problems with the present set-up – notably the fact that too much teaching for the tests took place in the final year of primary school, with the result that many youngsters were being disaffected by their education. He set up a review, headed by Lord Bew of Donegore, to review the current testing system. In one of his first acts as general secretary, Hobby seized the moment to call off any planned boycott of this year's tests and pledged to work with the review team in finding an alternative to the present system.

It was a gamble. Many of his members had sighed with relief when the vote to boycott the tests was announced. The mantra of the day was "no more SATs" – yet the decision to work with the review meant a return to the status quo this year. "This will be the last year of the tests in their present form," Hobby says now. Yet he accepts that the the final report of the Bew committee (and whether the Government backs its recommendations) will be a defining moment for relations between ministers and the NAHT.

In an interim report Lord Bew said: "Clearly change is needed." However, the committee added: "We were struck by the complexity of the challenge we face. Each proposal has arguments against, risks and uncertainties ... there will not be a single set of solutions that commands universal support." Its final verdict will be delivered in June – well in advance of the deadline for the start of preparations for the 2012 tests. As to whether the Government is listening to headteachers, the jury is out at the moment.

Some aspects of the behaviour package – such as the move to ban appeals panels – have been modified as a result of opposition from headteachers who feared merely scrapping them would drive parents to the courts to seek legal redress for their offspring.

As to the issues that will emerge at the conference, an obvious one is the Government's public spending cuts. The union will be publishing its own research into school budgets later this week and the signs are that it is patchy, with winners and losers. It is definitely not the case, though, that front-line services have been protected in all places, as the Government originally declared.

And, while Ofsted may well say behaviour is not a major problem in schools, research to be published by the union this weekend shows it is – as far as parents are concerned. A survey completed by more than 500 headteachers revealed that one in ten had been physically assaulted by a parent or carer during the past five years. Most of the assaults had taken place on school premises.

He believes that the "parent power" mantra repeated by successive governments may have led to many feeling that they had a veto over the way the school was run. "I'm not against parents having a real say in the way their schools are run, but sometimes you have to make choices and take decisions that displease them," he says.

Gove's discipline and behaviour package is more concerned with misdemeanours caused by pupils rather than parents. It may be a thought that Hobby would like to place in the Education Secretary's mind on Sunday that he also turn his attention to the behaviour of adults.

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