Brian Lightman never had any political ambitions. In fact, if someone had told him he would end up as the head of a trade union, he’d probably have laughed, he says.
Now in his second year as general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), he regularly rubs shoulders with policy makers, union officials and government types and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Lightman came to the role in 2010, with 30 years teaching experience and two headships under his belt.
Educated at the Westminster City School (a selective boys’ school in London) and Southampton University, he developed an interest in teaching after spending his gap year working in a residential special school.
But when he qualified as a languages teacher in 1979, perceptions of the teaching profession were at an all-time low.
He recalls: “People said to me things like, ‘Why don’t you get a better job? You’ve got a degree, you could go and do something better than teaching.’ That actually bolstered my resolve. I’ve always believed – and I still believe – that teaching is such an important job that it needs people, good graduates who are committed to doing it.”
What inspired him to go into the profession – and still drives him now – is his passion for giving young people the best opportunities in life. “I like working with young people – I think they are tremendously energetic and funny,” he says.
“Over the years, I have seen children who have faced incredible challenges in their personal lives and their domestic circumstances and yet have managed to achieve great things. That gives you a tremendous sense of achievement…”
And while there was no “great career plan,” Lightman worked his way through the ranks, becoming a head teacher at just 39.
His involvement with the ASCL (then known as the School Heads Association) came almost by chance, when he was invited to stand in for a member of the national council for a few months.
He went on to be a local branch secretary, national council treasurer, ASCL president for Wales and vice president for England, which he did for three years.
Had it not been for that period, when he was effectively shadowing the general secretary at the time John Dunford, who he says was a “fantastic mentor”, taking on the big job could have been daunting.
But he admits he couldn’t have stepped into the role at a more difficult time – less than six months after the coalition government came to power and with the threat of a pension dispute over government plans to scrap the final salary scheme and raise the retirement age just around the corner. It was the closest the ASCL has ever come to industrial action, says Lightman.
I never have any difficulty getting access to almost anybody, from the most senior officials, ministers, secretary of state, chief inspector, I mean, all these sorts of people…”
“I am very pleased that we were able to avoid it and move on to be able to bring the pensions dispute to some sort of conclusion,” he says. “But it has been very frustrating and I still think that the changes the government are going to impose, regardless of what anybody says, are potentially very detrimental to the well-being of our service.”
While he has never worked in further education, as a headteacher, Lightman worked closely with local FE and sixth form colleges.
He thinks the biggest challenge facing the sector at the moment is dealing with cuts, particularly entitlement to funding , which covers the cost of pastoral care, tutorials and extracurricular activities for 16- to 19-year-olds and the education maintenance allowance (EMA).
The replacement bursary fund for the EMA does not stretch far enough, he says, recalling a recent visit to a sixth form college in a rural area, where some students were having to travel a considerable distance to get into college each day.
“They [staff] were really fearful that some of the students…would not be able to carry on coming in because the bursary didn’t cover all their travel costs,” he says.
And while he is pleased that some colleges are trying to make up the shortfall – in some cases offering free bus passes or meal subsidies – they shouldn’t have to do this as a “marketing tool” to get students to enrol on courses, he says.
Lightman is also concerned by Ofsted’s growing interest in FE, particularly plans to downgrade colleges or training providers that get two grade 3 inspections to ‘inadequate.’
“If you compare FE with schools, they have certainly had more autonomy and more freedom to genuinely set their own vision, shape their own destiny, and be quite entrepreneurial.
“I think they have been a little bit less threatened by the sort of pressure that schools have had from Ofsted,” he says.
But he would hate to see colleges getting the same kind of heavy-handed treatment from Ofsted schools have become accustomed to. “If we are serious about improving our education service, then really we need to be able to have a professional dialogue with regulators and inspectors…an open dialogue which says, ‘Look, this is going well but this is not going so well and we would like to try x, y, z to improve it. Do you think we’re right or can you help us?’”
Also worrying him is the government’s new National Careers Service, due to be rolled out next month, which will give schools and colleges responsibility for providing independent careers advice and guidance for their students.
But with the launch just weeks away, the DfE is yet to produce statutory guidance for schools that explains how they might go about this.
The ASCL is pushing hard for face-to-face advice to be included in the guidance, but Lightman’s fear – shared with many in the sector – is that many young people will end up sitting in front of computer screens, instead of qualified, experienced advisers.
Since he took on the role of general secretary, Lightman’s life has changed, almost beyond recognition.
And while he jokes that he has a few more grey hairs than he did 18 months ago, he relishes the opportunity to influence and access some of the most prominent people in the world of education.
“I never have any difficulty getting access to almost anybody, from the most senior officials, ministers, secretary of state, chief inspector, I mean, all these sorts of people…whether or not we agree on things, it’s very important,” he says.
But living out of a suitcase has taken some getting used to.
While he has a flat in Leicester, where the ASCL is based, most weeks he is travelling around the country to attend meetings and conferences, which can be tiring.
And the buffet lunches and canapés have also taken their toll – so much so, he reveals, he is currently on a diet.
Now 56, Lightman says he has every intention of working until he is 65, but says he can’t see himself going onto a “substantive, full-time job” after his current role.
Graduate retirement is better, he says. But he is clear on one thing. “I won’t go on for a day longer than I feel I am doing a good job because I don’t think that would be a service to anybody.
“When I or anybody else begins to notice that I am running out of steam, that will be the time to go.”