The outpouring of sadness that followed the death of Sir Tim Brighouse came from beyond the world of education.
He was most closely associated with schools, but his reputation and impact were just as great in academia, local government, national and international politics.
Despite this reach, it is striking that so many people choose to recall a personal story when they talk about Tim; a note they received, a good idea he gave them, encouragement that made a difference when the going was tough.
If we only look back at Tim’s achievements and not forward to where he can still guide us, we miss something pretty special
I can think of few others who were able to span the gap between leading a large organisation and making everyone in it feel as though they mattered.
I count myself immensely lucky to have worked with Tim, when he became the director of education in Birmingham and I was a newly-elected MP in the city, through the days of the Labour government and beyond.
His personal and professional friendship have been cornerstones of my life for more than thirty years and I will miss him.
‘We must look forward as well as back’
When Labour came to power in 1997, we looked to Tim’s record in Birmingham and sought to reflect parts of it in our national programme.
Incentivising schools to work together, through Education Action Zones and later, Excellence in Cities, developing family of schools’ comparative data, teachers learning from each other, reforming the teacher workforce – all found their way into national policy.
Tim didn’t agree with everything we did, nor did we do everything that he would have wanted, but in the world of politics where the pressures come from so many directions, he was a guiding light, wise counsel and a good friend.
However, if we only look back at Tim’s achievements and not forward to where he can still guide us, we miss something pretty special.
Every day is important in schools but 2024 will be crucial in terms of national education policy and an incoming government can learn a great deal from looking at Tim’s record and the manner in which it was achieved.
‘Good policies can travel’
I would put these at the top of my list.
First, good policies, well led, can travel. One of the frustrations in education politics is seeing something work in one place and flounder elsewhere.
We risk losing ideas and effective practice because we are not good at either understanding why something works or persuading other people that it can work for them.
I saw what Tim did in Birmingham, transforming a hugely under-performing school system to one of the best in the land and then I saw him do it again in London.
Second, there can be no compromise on a broad and balanced curriculum. He preached and practiced that creativity, performing, sport, outdoor learning, citizenship weren’t secondary to an academic curriculum but inseparable from it.
He put as much intellectual effort and energy into developing these areas of learning as he did into raising standards of literacy and numeracy.
In Birmingham his ‘Pupil Guarantee’ spelt out what he thought went into a broad curriculum and it is an idea that I see adopted in other towns and cities.
Third, teachers matter. I often thought that the reason that Tim was so very highly regarded by teachers is that he was a pretty good teacher himself.
People knew what he expected of them. He made them feel secure and confident enough to aim higher than they might otherwise have done, he worked with them to develop the skills they needed to do the job and he celebrated their success.
‘We must restore education to its proper place’
The collegiality and solid school improvement work that underpinned Tim’s success, understanding the importance of a broad curriculum and putting it at the centre of a child’s learning and truly valuing the importance of teachers, would make a pretty good starting point for a future government.
None of this can happen unless as a nation we restore education to its proper place.
Above all, what drove Tim was an unshakeable conviction that at its heart, education had a moral purpose and was key to promoting social justice.
Education matters to nations and economies but that depends on how it impacts on every individual in the land.
When Tim started in Birmingham, he had already persuaded the Labour run local authority that they had to prioritise education if there was to be any chance of success.
When Labour came to power in 1997, we had already committed to education as our main priority.
Any policymaker who wants to build on the legacy built by Tim Brighouse should understand that this is the level of commitment needed if the sort of change Tim achieved is to be delivered elsewhere.