The Baroness and the Nutter (apologies to John Creasey)

by Harry on April 23, 2007

I’ve never shared a platform with my dad, but we have, a couple of times in recent years, been keynote speakers at the same conferences. He preceded me both times, and because he’s about the best public speaker I’ve seen it is impossible to upstage him. The more recent conference was in October in Chicago, and both of us were a bit nervous that he wouldn’t do as well as usual with an audience that is more academic than his normal audience, and almost entirely American. No need to worry — as the audience was rivetted after about 5 minutes — at several tables there were intense sub-conversations as people absorbed the message. But his performance damaged mine. Someone who had never seen him before, but knows me well, said afterward his talk: “it was just like watching you”, by which she did not mean that I’m as good a speaker (I’m not) but that we share many mannerisms. So in my talk, the next day, I was deeply inhibited, stopping myself whenever I found myself mimicking him (about once every 2 or 3 minutes).

Anyway, that’s all just an introduction to an invitation to watch him on Teachers TV in conversation with Estelle Morris reflecting on his 45 year long career, the education reforms of the past 20 years, and today’s challenges. They’re both very good, and especially at the end they are both quite good about how difficult it is for central government to handle the schools well. Americans, especially, if you have 30 minutes to spare, you can see a smart and thoughtful person talking about the evolution of a set of reforms rather like those you are now embarked upon. Me, I think he’s the ideal reflective practitioner. But I may be biased.
(Explanation of my title, if needed, here, here, and here).

Update: Thanks to Tom Hurka for pointing me to this lovely piece by Peter Wilby in the Guardian. My colleagues and students, note: “I am eyeing the cheerful chaos of his Oxford home, where even the rooms seem laid out haphazardly, so that the kitchen is where the garage ought to be”. The nicest compliment of the lot: ‘whose appearance is so dishevelled that his arrival on school premises has sometimes led caretakers to report “a dodgy character”‘



mpowell 04.23.07 at 8:40 pm

It can be a little eerie when you grow up and realize that you have adopted all of your dad’s mannerisms. What was especially puzzling to me was that this was not the case when I was growing up and living with my parents while in high school, say, but after I had graduated from college and had spent quite a bit of time away from home.


jackie 04.23.07 at 9:32 pm

Thank you for that. Your father’s passion and knowledge is amazing.


vivian 04.24.07 at 1:12 am

aargh, I surfed over here after discovering I can’t see any webcast stuff for some reason. Will add it to my list.
Any chance of inviting your father for a guest dialogue here, or a post/comment thing? Surely there would be a way to make it tech-free for him, but allow us to see the two of you interacting? As someone who spent years trying to unlearn my father’s mannerisms, I would appreciate seeing your charms, doubled. I could even throw in a tin of golden syrup to sweeten the deal…


tom hurka 04.24.07 at 1:11 pm

Good timing: there’s a front-page story on Tim Brighouse in the Education section of today’s Guardian (all glowingly favourable, too).


vivian 04.25.07 at 12:42 am

Thanks, Tom – online in the US it’s not front page, but it’s the first hit when you search on “Brighouse” and then choose T instead of S (also a relation with an interesting life, Harry?) The article makes him sound a bit like Isaiah Berlin as a character, with a slightly different calling.


tom hurka 04.25.07 at 10:34 am

Harry: An addendum. One thing the Guardian article says your dad encouraged was head teachers standing outside the school at the start of the day and welcoming students and parents as they arrive. Well, I’m in Oxford for six months and our 8-year-old is going to school here. And one thing I was struck by was how the head teacher stands outside the school in the morning welcoming people. Now maybe I know where that comes from.


harry b 04.25.07 at 2:42 pm

tom — yes, it probably does come from him. One of his extraordinary traits is that he is always on the look out for practices and ideas that will work, and always figuring out how to spread them. Frankly many of them — like the head standing outside the school — are bleeding obvious, but evidently that’s not enough for people to do them, they need to be told and assured by someone they respect. He gets his ideas from spending an enromous amount of time in schools and watching and listening — I doubt there is anyone in the world who has been in as many schools and as any classrooms as he has, or talked to as many teachers. But he also reads voraciously and eclectically (something he has in common with Adonis, actually, and by no means the only thing), and is always drawing on that.

When we were in Oxford the head of my daughter’s school would write a little note to 3 or 4 children a day. Most of the kids would reply, and a spaced out correspondence would develop. I was blown away by this, and asked him if he’d prompted this, but he’d never heard of it. Immediately he incorporated it into every talk he gave to headteachers. As he says, if 1 in 20 take it up, that is thousands of children whose experience of school is postively changed ever so slightly.


ingrid 04.25.07 at 7:22 pm

I can’t watch the video on this not-quite-fully-equiped computer, but the piece in the Guardian is truly amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever read a piece about a person that was so univocally positive.
What I especially like about how his style and ways of working are described is the illustration that one person can make such a difference. In these days, most people (or perhaps, pessimists like me) feel that there is so little a person can do against ‘the system’ or without first establishing cooperation with other persons; but he seems to have been the single driving force behind a lot of good things that happend in the UK schooling world.


Maynard Handley 04.26.07 at 3:24 am

I assume is some sort of advocacy organization?
Harry, you might want to point out to them two obvious facts:
* the goal of an advocacy organization is to get its ideas as widely disseminated as possible
* the sorts of people who it should seek to influence are the same sort of people who have many many demands on their time.

Which leads me to:
WTF does this organization not allow me to download this item, and why does it not offer an audio version I can put on my iPod?

I am against the GOP as much as anyone, but at least their lobbying organizations know what they are doing; for example AEI offers an extremely rich podcast, and the Manhattan Institute have every talk they offer immediately available for download.

And this stuff matters. The very fact that this organization is so clueless makes me a whole lot less sympathetic to ceding it any power.


harry b 04.26.07 at 12:38 pm

Maynard — several people have said they can’t watch it, and I can’t figure out why that is — I have no trouble doing so, despite having a 5 yr old and not well equipped computer. Anyone know? (I’m in the US, and at least one person in the UK can’t watch it, so it is not about location). But they should certainly make avaiable an audio-pod version, and I’ll send an email (I’ve no inside track here!)

It is not, in fact, an advocacy group, but a quasi-independent government project, funded and supported by the Department for Education and Skills. (Estelle, the interviewer, used to be Secretary of State for Education (the cabinet-level minister), before she resigned claiming that she wasn’t good enough to do the job, and if that doesn’t endear her to you nothing could). Maybe a subject for another post.

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