A measure of Sir David Hart's influence in government circles can be glimpsed by the following exchange in the early days of New Labour. Tony Blair's education advisers were mulling over a potentially controversial education reform – there were murmurings about how it might be an anathema to the National Union of Teachers followed by silence. A voice, that of a senior adviser, piped up: "Ah, but what do the National Association of Head Teachers think about it?" The implication was that, if they too opposed it, it could be jettisoned to the history books.
Hart, who died of cancer in a hospice near his home in Cumbria, was general secretary of the NAHT for 27 years from 1979 to 2006, dealing with 12 different Education Secretaries during his time in office. He moved the organisation to the centre stage of education politics – making it into one of the most respected and influential of the six teaching organisations.
An indication of his firmness emerged during his first year of office. Britain was in the throes of the winter of discontent. Public service workers were taking industrial action, dustbins went unemptied and dead bodies unburied. He was asked to assure senior civil servants that his members would keep schools open during a caretakers' strike that took place at the same time. He replied firmly that he could not give that assurance. It was up to individual heads themselves to assess the situation in their own schools.
He did not, though, show any party-political allegiances in his dealings with governments of a very different hue. Indeed, in an interview with this newspaper shortly before his retirement he singled out Kenneth (now Lord) Baker and David Blunkett as the two Education Secretaries he had been closest to – one Conservative and one Labour. Baker, he felt, was responsible for the most significant reforms during his period in office, including allowing heads to manage their own school budgets, the forerunner of the academies programme.
Blunkett, he felt, he could have supported more over the introduction of the literacy hour and daily maths lesson in primary schools – widely credited with introducing the first major rise in English and maths standards since the Second World War. His greatest regret, he confided in another interview with the late Ted Wragg, Professor of Education at Exeter University, was that he had been unable to persuade successive governments to abandon their commitment to exam league tables, an issue which still dogs the profession today.
Hart was a solicitor before he took on the NAHT job – the firm he worked for had been acting for the union on legal issues – and there was some criticism that the union had not opted for a serving headteacher to fill the role. That was soon silenced, and even his rivals paid tribute to the negotiating skills he had honed in developing legal arguments in his former career. One said as his retirement approached, "He is very effective with the Department [for Education]. He has got the lawyer's ability to master a brief. He can look through [government] documents and come up with a list of the 27 points that he's unhappy about."
Russell Hobby, the NAHT's current general secretary, said: "He became the public face of school leadership and raised the standing of the profession. At the same time he was a subtle behind-the-scenes campaigner, winning the trust and respect of officials and politicians."
In 1988 Hart was awarded the OBE for services to education, and in 2006, the year he retired, he became Sir David Hart. He accepted his knighthood on behalf of the NAHT and saw it as being as much about recognition of the vital role of headteachers as it was a testament to his own personal achievements.
"It's a great honour for me but I would like to think it's because we [the NAHT] have been able to help school leaders," he said. "We have played a part in making sure that their role is recognised as being absolutely vital to the future of the education of this country – and to the future of the country itself."
Hart did almost literally ride off into the sunset when he retired, swopping a life living out of suitcases in hotels as he traversed the country to settling down with his wife, Frankie, in Cumbria to devote more time to riding his horse. I like to think he could also – from a distance – spend some time looking out for the fortunes of two passions that he shared with me, Middlesex County Cricket Club and Arsenal.
David Michael Hart, solicitor and public servant: born 27 August 1940; General Secretary, National Association of Head Teachers 1979-2006; married firstly Mary (marriage dissolved; two sons), 1996 Frances Morton; died 13 March 2013.