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Primary Education News
News Russell Hobby: 'The government has licensed disrespect for teachers'
The headteachers' leader is worried about a rise in violence against his members in schools
At the National Association of Head Teachers' conference in May, the general secretary, Russell Hobby, described the mood of his members as ugly, angry and "quite close to the brink". The association's president said that heads had "never had it so bad". When Michael Gove, the education secretary, addressed the conference, he was greeted with groans and jeers. Eighteen months earlier, for the first time in 114 years, NAHT members went on strike, after a 75% vote in favour on a 53% turnout (unusually large by most unions' standards). It is now on the point of joining the TUC.
But Hobby, 41, eager, bright-eyed and enthused with positive thinking – he looks and sounds like the boy whose hand always went up first in class – doesn't at first seem terribly angry. The National Union of Teachers and NASUWT have announced more strikes for this term. Will the NAHT's 28,000 members, mostly in primary schools, join them? "No," Hobby says firmly, as we meet in his modest office in Haywards Heath, West Sussex. "I don't know what the unions want to achieve by this. They're just saying they don't like anything that's happening in education."
But there is an edge in Hobby's voice when we move on to Gove. "It's no use Michael Gove telling heads they have a moral duty to open. If you've got all your teachers on strike and 300 children running around without supervision, it's the head's neck on the block. Only the head can decide whether it's safe to open a school. They get quite irritated with the pressure from both government and unions."
"Irritated" isn't the same as "ugly" and "angry". Moreover, Hobby declares himself moderately satisfied with concessions won on pensions, the issue that led to the 2011 strike. "I reckon we won back about £40,000 over a lifetime for the average member."
He's also holding fire on the government's introduction of more tests. Of the new Spag (spelling, punctuation and grammar) tests for 11-year-olds, he says: "We don't object to assessment. We do object to assessment that doesn't accurately reflect performance. A multiple-choice test isn't an accurate reflection of writing ability. Knowing what an adverb is doesn't mean knowing how to use one effectively. The trouble with this government is that if you can't measure it, it doesn't exist." He's equally scathing about the new phonics test for six-year-olds. "It includes made-up words. Schools have wall displays of nonsense words. Why should primary schools waste their time on that?" As for Gove's proposal that parents of 11-year-olds should be told which ability decile (top 10%, bottom 10% and so on) their children are in, he calls it "cruel, because you can't accurately measure children's ability to within deciles – and how is somebody going to engage with their secondary education after being told they're in the bottom 10%?"
But for now, these ideas are either in the consultation stage or, as with the Spag and phonics tests, they are not used in judging school performance. There won't yet be any action against them, such as repeating the heads' boycott of key stage 2 Sats in 2010, just before Hobby took over. "I don't think my members would take part in anything that ranks pupils in deciles. And if the Spag becomes part of school accountability, we're heading towards difficult waters. But I prefer to negotiate."
It all sounds disappointingly reasonable. "Heads negotiate", unlike "heads go on strike", doesn't pass a newspaper's "man bites dog" test. So why did Hobby give such an alarming prognosis in May? Normally, he gives rapid-fire answers, but now he thinks for a moment. "I'd say that, with the exception of pensions, I could have taken any one of the government's policies to our members in a way that excited and inspired them. But then ministers wouldn't have had the Mail and Telegraph headlines. On the national curriculum, they could have said to heads: you've achieved a great deal and we know you teach times tables, recite poetry and teach grammar. And we're going to give you lots more freedom so you can do what you think is right in history and so on. On the core subjects, however, we want to tighten up a bit.
"But, no, it has to be done in terms of schools dumbing down. How are you going to get people to engage with new challenges when you're holding up for contempt everything they've achieved in the past 20 years? It hurts, and it's wrong. Our schools are better than they've ever been. When we first started doing Sats, 50% of children reached a level of competence in English and maths, and now it's 80%. That's a better journey than the Footsie 100 has taken in the last decade. Ministers could have said: 80% is fantastic, how are we going to pull up the next 20%, which we know will be much more difficult?
"This government has licensed disrespect of the teaching profession so that some parents think they can come in and bash schools around. There's a rise in violence against headteachers. Three-quarters of my members have had a threat of violence in the past five years, and one in 10 has been physically assaulted. And, don't forget, the majority of heads are now women."
The name "Gove" doesn't pass Hobby's lips during this eloquent j'accuse. He's too canny an operator to personalise his attacks. His sure-footed tread through education's minefields is all the more striking because he has never worked in a school either as a head or a classroom teacher. By trade, he is a management consultant, who took a pay cut to join the NAHT. To understand why, you have to go back to his childhood.
He was born in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, in 1972. His father, a plasma physicist, worked on nuclear fusion research for the UK Atomic Energy Authority in nearby Culham. But when Hobby was eight, his father was knocked off his moped and killed. "After the funeral," he recalls, "I recognised my headteacher from the local CofE primary, Mr Peacock, walking away. He had come to the funeral but hadn't stayed to make a fuss. There was no 'here I am', it was completely self-effacing. Years later, I thought: that's the sort of thing heads do, and it never gets measured." More important, Peacock gave his mother, left to provide alone for two children, a job. She was a qualified teacher who had stopped work to raise a family. She stayed, always as a classroom teacher, for 20 years. "I thought of that when I saw the NAHT job advert in 2010. I wanted to represent people like Mr Peacock."
After comprehensive school, Hobby went to Oxford University, where he read PPE (philosophy, politics and economics). He ruled out teaching because, like most teachers in the 1970s, his mother advised against it. "I thought I should become a management consultant because that was the highest status profession at the time. But a friend's father got me to set up an IT firm for him though, to be honest, I hadn't a clue what I was doing." Later, he joined Hay management consultancy where he stayed for 12 years during which he worked on several educational research projects and met hundreds of headteachers.
On his appointment as NAHT general secretary, he told one journalist he was "pretty far left wing" and had christened his son Keir (he also has a daughter) after Keir Hardie, a Labour pioneer. "When I was a management consultant," he says now, "I thought I was very left wing. When I joined the union movement, I thought I wasn't so far left after all." He's a Labour party member, but not a very active one, and, though he looks slightly offended at the description, he strikes me as a Blairite at heart who likes private enterprise and doesn't mind academies and free schools. He didn't join political societies or take part in union activities at Oxford – "I was chair of the JCR entertainments committee, which was the least political role you could get" – and his chief preoccupations, it seems, were playing rugby and reading science fiction. He says he was more interested in studying politics, as part of his PPE course, than in playing an active role.
Not all that passionate in his politics, then, but certainly passionate about his job. He talks enthusiastically about NAHT initiatives. He has secured government agreement that schools in the "requires improvement" category will be spared "involuntary interventions" – thus saving them from forced academisation and the dreaded academy brokers – for three years if they join an improvement scheme run by the association with EdisonLearning.
This term, the NAHT is also piloting Instead, an inspection regime that aims to supplant Ofsted. "Ofsted has become too big," Hobby argues. "Too many inspectors haven't worked in classrooms for years. They turn up to do lesson observations when it's school sports day. They arrived at one nursery where every child was on a field trip and proceeded to inspect an empty school." Under Instead, schools would be inspected by serving heads (not in their own locality) – "people who know what they're looking at and can give qualitative judgments" – and only where there were serious problems would HMI be involved, as used to be the case.
It's an ambitious scheme, but Hobby says it creates something that a future government could develop. I suspect we shall hear more of Hobby and – who knows? – if he can see off the academy brokers and overthrow Ofsted, he may play a heroic role in educational history.