Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 270-279)




  270. Can I welcome Professor Tim Brighouse to our proceedings and to say before we commence our questioning that we have certainly had a most enjoyable week in this fair city. The original idea was to roll up our sleeves and really get to know the local education authority and its area. We took some considerable time before we decided on Birmingham. I think all of us would agree that we decided on the right place to come, not only because of the way in which everyone we have met has been anxious to open doors, to talk to us frankly, and to share their knowledge and their insights as well as their concerns and everything else, but also because here is a city which I think someone on the Committee said only on Wednesday, "You can read about how big education is in Birmingham, but it is only when you have been to half a dozen schools and moved around the city for a few days that you realise this is an enormous undertaking." Thank you very much, Professor Brighouse, for putting so many facilities at our disposal. To come to this morning, if you felt you wished to, would you like to say a few words to open the discussion we are going to have with you?
  (Professor Brighouse) That is kind and you have wrong-footed me straightaway because I was expecting to undergo a grilling! I merely say I have given you a statement which outlines the urban challenge. In that statement I gave you there is a paper on secondary education—which I intend to give at the end of the month and I do not mind cross-questions on that but for obvious reasons I do not want it in the public demain before I give it because it is a bit unfair to the people to whom I am presenting the paper—and I also gave you a paper where I outlined various points that it seems to me worth emphasising, things like birth to five, things like under-achieving groups, and my getting to grips with that I thought rather later than I should have done, and I have outlined what I think about all of those. One thing with the benefit of hindsight I wish I had said in all the written material is around transition from primary to secondary school. I know that is your focus. It seems to me that in large metropolitan urban areas, the larger the place, the easier the transport arrangements, the bigger the problem, then the transition from primary to secondary school is a huge issue, made large by the fact that, first of all, there is the simple logistics of so many children from different schools going into a receiving secondary school, so that that militates already against links that you could reasonably propose to make between primary and secondary. That is one issue connected with it. The other issue is that it is really, really difficult in a very large metropolitan area—and I suspect that may be shielded from other metropolitan areas by having lots of small authorities—to know exactly where all the children have gone. It always haunts me and it has haunted clearly my predecessors if you look in the archives—and I do mean right the way back in history—as to in these very large conurbations there are children who are in most challenging circumstances where there might be a collusion between the home and the child not to get the child to school at all. So there is both the problem of the figurative loss of children with children figuratively not being at school once they get to secondary school and then there is the real issue of children who may not actually be at school. The difficulty is that up to now we have never been quite sure whether they are not at school or whether they have merely moved, as hard as you chase it with welfare officers. There are frequently cases where they genuinely have moved but occasionally you come across cases where they have managed to elude, as it were, our responsibilities and the parent has colluded in failing to get the child to school and children do not get a fair start in life. There is a haunting sepia echo of the Dickensian world in that description. I want to raise that point of primary to secondary transfer because I think it is a really key issue. I think there are lots of things government could do. The Government is going to do something around introducing, I think, some fairly obligatory—and I would make them mandatory—units of transfer in terms of the curriculum between primary and secondary. But I think there are lots of other things that could be done such as the way secondary schools organise themselves in year seven in order not to figuratively lose children in the early months and years of secondary education. That would be my extra point beyond the ones you have already got.

  271. Thank you for that. Can I start the questioning proper by asking you what may seem a rather mundane question and that is what do you feel about the importance of a head, the qualities a head? We have seen some extraordinary heads of schools as we have moved around the city this week. How important is that head? And how important is a head when you have got a difficult school and for all sorts of reasons—changing population, close to the city centre, all the things that we know about—it is a difficult to manage school and then along comes a superb head who is able to turn it around? What should a head put into operation to make sure that when that head moves on to a new promotion or job or even retirement that that school stays in a good position?
  (Professor Brighouse) Could I just with a preliminary say that I think there are things that we can do systemically and a lot of those are covered in the second half of the paper that I have given you. That is to say I think secondary schools on their own in heavy metropolitan urban circumstances can do so much, and they do a great deal—and in the circumstances you describe (and I will reflect on the real direction of your question) do extraordinarily well—but I do think that schools on their own cannot do it all. Clearly, I mean that both in respect to other services that need to give support and the impact on employment and housing in an area where there may be challenging circumstances, but I also mean in terms of collegiality, of schools working together. Coming back directly to your question, headteachers and the leadership of a school is important in any circumstances and in the circumstances which you describe it is crucial and they need an extraordinary degree of the characteristics and habits and skills of leadership which you would identify anyway in any school circumstance. We could have a long discussion about what those characteristics are, but it certainly would be to do with energy, certainty, hope, purpose, moral endeavour, a remarkable gift of relationships, and a huge energy. Certainly energy is the quality that I think is present to a remarkable degree in Birmingham and it has been deliberate to foster that energy. I have always believed that there are energy creators and energy consumers. If you said optimists and pessimists or half full and half empty or silver lining and cloud, "how we could" or "why we can't", you get an impression of what I mean. In an urban circumstance where there are huge challenges, the energy creators are important. If the head has not got that in those circumstances—and it is very difficult to describe what he has to have and he has to have that genuinely—then the link is lost. You have seen one or two of those characters in your visits. What I think they could do, irrespective of my point about collegiality, is to grow leadership in the school. That is tremendously important. I always regret that there are so many good ideas that we have never carried out. The one simple good idea that if I had my time over again I would want to say, "This should not remain a good idea, we should do it", is when a person is appointed to a headship, the next day after the governors make the appointment, they should be invited to go to, before they take up the position, three schools in very comparable circumstances so they have an in depth look at what three other places have done. I do not mind whether it is well or whether it is badly, but they definitely need that comparative information before they come into a school they take over. The second thing I would do, which we do not do for these systematic changes, is give them a leadership coach. I have been immensely impressed as the years have gone on by the subtlety of coaching and its power. I have used two coaches during the last ten years (and I did not use them before) for myself and for my team. I think coaching is important. If you appointed a coach when a new head came into such a situation, the coach would be growing leadership not of that person who has taken over the role but throughout the school, whether it at the crucial middle level, which in a secondary school can be absolutely appalling, or whether it or lower down. I would want those two things to happen. I have noticed that whether it is intuitive or deliberate, those schools which survive the departure of a really successful head have done that, they have grown leadership throughout the school so, as it were, it has got a momentum that will carry on, and it has created a position where in more favourable socio-economic circumstances they can survive less inspirational less energetic leadership. It is almost as though the conductor has left the room and the orchestra can continue to play, but not for long. What I really want to say is that however much you grow the leadership, if that central leadership is not still providing the same value system, acting as a commentator, story teller, seeing the wider horizon and making good judgments, in the end it will start to fracture.

  272. Of course you know what I am going to say next and that is you are moving on. It is very evident that is like a head moving on. Are there similar lessons that you just told the Committee that a head should learn about how to pass on what he has bought to a school or she has bought to a school? Do you think you have been successful in putting all that in place for what happens here in Birmingham after your departure at the end of this month?
  (Professor Brighouse) First, a caution. The first thing to say is that it is not a school and what I was describing was a school. It is slightly different and the influence of a local education authority over what happens in schools is less powerful than the influence of a headteacher. I would think it is less powerful than the national influence now because what people wake up to on Radio 4 or Radio 5, or whatever they are listening to, I must be careful, affects their climate as they are going into school each day, and how teachers go into school each day affects how children learn. If they are going in in the morning and they are in not in a "can do" frame of mind, it affects children's learning. There is no doubt about it. The national scene affects that. What we can do locally is try to affect it and try to provide services and perhaps provide an example of talking about teaching and learning and school improvement and all the things that you know are going on in good schools. We have done that. The second thing to say is, yes, there is remarkably good leadership, indeed there has had to be, throughout the services in Birmingham to overcome the deficiencies, and there are many deficiencies, in my leadership and my management. There is in all people's leadership and management. It is a question of being realistic about where your weak suites are and trying to make sure that they are recognised and you are recognising them and you are trying to get people in to make sure that they do not cause serious damage.

  273. Thank you.
  (Professor Brighouse) There is a super successor as well by the way. I am fond of saying he is the Bob Paisley to my Shankly.

  Chairman: I must comment in passing that I also think that what a teacher listens to on Radio 4 and Radio 5 in the morning is very important, and very often the best decision I make is not to go on it at all!

Jonathan Shaw

  274. I do not know if they are going to have some memorial gates outside the Council House.
  (Professor Brighouse) I trust not for a while!

  275. You mention children not going on to secondary school. We visited the Women's Academy and we met a young woman who when she was 13 did not go to secondary school because her family would not countenance the idea of her going to a mixed school, and so it was not until she was able to go to the Women's Academy that she was able to get the qualifications that she has now and she is in employment. Do you see that as a particular issue for particular Muslin communities in terms of youngsters dropping out of school because of family pressures? Are you referring to particular ethnic groups here?
  (Professor Brighouse) I think we are referring to a religious group and the complications of faith, religion, nationality and race are extremely intricate and sensitive. There is no doubt at all that Islam has brought to the city a great wealth of new mutual understandings. Its culture has enriched the city. It is a culture I have been delighted to work with. I am pleased that we have got two Muslim aided schools. I regret that in 1940 we did not take religion out of the school system but I am realistic, it is within the school system, and, frankly, in a city where 20 to 30 per cent of the primary and secondary population would claim that they came from a Muslim background, it seems rather odd that we have not got more aided schools. Historically we have inherited a position where there are other major faiths represented. That is one thing. The other thing to say about Islam, and there is a lot to say, is that it is a less coherently organised religion than the other major faiths, so that each mosque and each Imam has a considerable amount of independence from another mosque and another Imam. So there is difficulty in talking to those who represent that faith. When I say there is a difficulty, there is that difficulty but that should not excuse the fact that most people have some Islamophobia and are not very clever at wanting to learn about Islam. Within Islam there are lots of different cultural assumptions that are rooted in national and even sub-national traditions. If I said to you Al-Hijrah is a co-educational Islamic school, which it is, and that it teaches girls and boys separately but they are within one school community and organised as one school community, there you have one tradition. There will be people within the Islamic tradition who say that is wrong and that it should be entirely separate. There will be people within the Islamic tradition who would say it needs to be co-educational. Pragmatically within Birmingham we have the problem, which must appear to be very odd to Islamic eyes, that in those parts of the city which are not Islamic there are high numbers of girls only places. They beat a track to the doors of those schools so that proportionately they have found what they want in those schools but overall, and the same is true of Islam as it is of any other faith or national population—when you ask parents what they want of secondary education, in a free vote, as it were, in an urban area—nobody would think of this in a county or rural area and it is another difference between the large metropolitan urban areas—60 per cent will say they want single sex education for their girls but they want co-education for their boys. This leads to an imbalance and it does prove that in the large metropolitan urban areas—and I really will say it is the large metropolitan urban areas I am talking about—what you have got is an imbalance of boys to girls within the co-educational schools. If you look at OFSTED evidence, it is a much steeper task to create a successful environment in an imbalanced co-educational school. Whether that is to do with the maturation of boys and girls during adolescence and the habits and traditions of boys and girls—I suspect it is and that is why I am speculating about the issue. There are some children who I suspect are not in school for that reason, although less than when that 13-year-old was a 13-year-old because there are lots of independent schools as well as Al-Hijrah and I suspect there will be more Muslim aided secondary schools.

  276. Is it inevitable that there will be more maintained schools?
  (Professor Brighouse) If we are to have faith secondary schools it is desirable that there should be. It is intolerable that there should not be if we have faith secondary schooling. I am parking on one side as to whether I would have faith secondary school.

Ms Munn

  277. I want to come on to this issue about leadership and heads and your role. You seem to be saying that you feel that the local education authority role in terms of how they work with the schools is perhaps less influential than the national scene. What was very clear to us is that not only did the heads that we saw have a lot in common in the way they are, exactly as you describe—inspirational, full of energy, very purposeful—but also ,without exception, they talked about what you had provided to them in terms of creating the culture and creating support. We had three headteachers who sat there and said, "On my first day in the job Tim Brighouse was there." The fact that you are within the schools a lot gives a powerful message. This is a huge authority with a lot of the educational establishments and you were walking the job, as they say, and getting out and doing that. What were you not able to do, making the assumption that you gave that priority?
  (Professor Brighouse) I gave that priority but there were lots of things I could not do. By the way, one of the reasons I am going is because I cannot keep up doing that. Once you have been a leader in a single position for a long time it is very, very difficult and because your lines of obligation become so extended and so many people have calls on your time, it is hard to keep up with the little things. You have to work flat out in order to win the credit or have the influence that you know you ought to have. It is partly because I have run out of that that I ought to go. Exactly the same happened to me within Oxfordshire. It might be age but I think it is both age and length of time in the job. What did I not do? First of all, do not under-estimate the fact that you can do two or three or four things at once. It is one of the things that is a quality of a good teacher anyway. That is a quality I hope I have taken on into other activities. Using time twice or three times over is a clever thing to do. For example, if I write a note to schools commending something that they have done, which I might do quite a lot—you probably heard I do quite a lot—I always to try to mention somebody else that has told me about it because then you are reinforcing the position of the other person. Are you with me? While you are about schools you can ask questions that help in other regards. If you plan it well enough you can be doing other things while you are about it. If you get up very early you can be in school before most people are in work because most of the heads are in school, so you could meet a whole staff of a school and a head and apparently intensively be there and be in the office by quarter past nine. It is a question of using time cleverly and doing more than one thing. But very early on I did say that it seemed to me that I must spend all my time in schools (which I did) partly because there are things about the organisation of the place that I did not like. I thought it was too reactive to crisis. The same is happening in one of the other major departments and we are gradually getting that right, I think. It was too reactive to crisis so rather than be in the office I was out doing things. I thought somebody else can handle the crises. You know how it is! We wanted to get out of crisis and into being proactive, and I also wanted restructure the place a little bit. Most people fall into a mistake or the right thing—and in my case I think it was the right thing. I inherited a matrix management right across the department. I cannot handle that. I do admire those who can. The whole of our advisory service is now run on a matrix system and is brilliantly run but I cannot handle it, so I wanted to change it because I have not got the skill to do it. So for the first six months I was spending my time in schools. As it turned out, all sorts of things were happening in that first six months which redounded to my advantage. I did not realise I was doing it. For example, all the people I was meeting were members of political parties. I was not conscious of this but I could not have thought of a better thing to do because there was a political message going back as well as an educational message about what was happening. I was also blessed with a political colleague, Andy Howell, who I think you have met, who I got on instantly and effortlessly with, and he was taking care of a lot of things and would joke and slightly tweak me about, "Where's Tim? You never see him", but we were meeting in the evenings over meals and we worked in very close partnership and he was taking care of a lot of the things, including the crises, thank heaven. But that is what we did.

  278. So what did you not do?
  (Professor Brighouse) I did not do a lot of the central stuff for the first six or nine months.

  279. What are the implications of not doing that? What I am trying to get at is if we are to look at lessons and things that we can learn from an authority which certainly has not got everything right—
  (Professor Brighouse)—There are loads of things we have not got right.


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