What went wrong with Birmingham after Tim Brighouse left?

I’ve been teaching in Birmingham for 12 years. When I started teaching, Birmingham was such a popular authority (and I was such an average NQT) that I couldn’t get a job there – I had to move to Hertfordshire for a year instead.


Back in Birmingham a year later, it was a magical place to be working. Tim Brighouse was (and still is) a true visionary leader. He cast a vision where every child could succeed and where teachers knew they could play a meaningful part of that success.


I met him toward the end of their tenure in 2001 – he had this habit of just turning up at your school, saying something perceptive and positive and leave with the whole staff feeling really good about themselves. When I met him he was taking a year to visit every school in the authority – a reasonable task you might think for the leader of all the schools in that authority, but when you consider that there are more than 400 schools in Birmingham, it’s a task that would mean visiting at least 2 schools every day.


In addition to Professor Tim, Mick Waters, recently head of the QCDA, was head of the advisory service in Birmingham (BASS). I remember the advisors that he inspired talking so passionately about their subjects that it rubbed off on everyone else. Today those same advisors, many of whom are taking redundancy of ‘going independent’, still talk about the halcyon days under Mick and Tim.


Now Birmingham Local Authrity is wracked for cash. Mick Waters BASS once had more than 300 people to serve it’s 420 schools, soon it will have less than 50. Where in other areas of the country some job cuts can be covered by not renewing secondments, in Birmingham the sheer size of the service meant that secondments were phased out over 10 years ago. In addition, the social services department, now the province of the dirctor of children’s services (the equivalent position held by Tim, but an area that he didn’t have to deal with) has failed two inspections.


I can hear the words of the Emperor in ‘The Gladiator’ played by the late Richard Harris, saying “there once was a dream that was Brimingham…” it is this idea that a large city with many different languages spoken and many differet cultures represented can somehow pull together and work towards a better future. That idea existed under Tim and Mick.


So what did go wrong?


I suppose you could blame it on a whole load of external factors: the economy, social media, 9-11; or even internal factors such as appointing too many advisors or admin staff.


However, I think it goes down to succession planning. Tim and Mick are both brilliant leaders, but the people who came after them weren’t quite as good somehow. Not quite as good at passing on a vision. I don’t know them personally, but I think one perogative of leadership is to be a leader of leaders – to be raising up the kind if people who can not only do what you can do, but can do better than you can do. Many leaders need a good manager or two to follow them round and make sure their vision is carried out – if those managers are never given the opportunity to develop their own vision then they won’t be able even to follow in their leader’s footsteps, let alone surpass them.


That’s all a load of pub-theory of course. I have no real knowledge of the internal workings of Birmingham LA over the past ten years. The real impact for me is to make sure that I can lead people well, whilst giving some the opportunities and skills to go beyond what I can ever do. That goes for my own children, students and staff alike.

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