Page last updated at 20:11 GMT, Monday, 15 January 2007

Heads summoned to Mr Blair's office

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Tony Blair, head teachers' seminar
Business leaders and head teachers came to hear Mr Blair's message

If Tony Blair is the nation's head teacher - then presumably a meeting at 10, Downing Street is the equivalent of being summoned to the head teacher's office.

And on Monday, head teachers and business leaders were called to step inside the Big Black Door of Number 10 to hear the prime minister's endorsement of a project designed to find a new type of school leader.

Future Leaders - a title with no shortage of connotations for the Labour party - is a project designed to recruit and train an elite group of teachers to take charge of the toughest inner-city schools.

Instead of clawing their way up the career ladder over several decades, these fast-tracked, crack troops of the education sector could be deputies after two years and head teachers after four years.

It's also another symbolic reading on the compass for where the Blair administration is taking education.

The objective is almost evangelically public service - wanting to find ways to break the chains that link poverty to educational failure, generation after generation.

But the means of getting there are increasingly private sector. Looking around the table in Downing Street, along with the head teachers, there are business representatives and political string-pullers, rather than civil servants and local authority leaders.


For teachers, the only familiar figure under the PM's chandelier would be the head teachers' leader, John Dunford, who looks on benignly like a wise old chancellor in a Tudor court portrait.

Education ministers, heads seminar

This is a project with a minimum of bureaucracy - supported by ministers, but operating as a fleet-footed independent project. The ideology is in-house, but the delivery is outsourced.

It's all about cutting to the chase. It's as if Mr Blair and his education team have got tired of delays, there's an inescapable sense that they feel that change comes too slowly - now they're trying to find a fast-forward button.

A head teacher talks about the importance of "courage and conviction" in leaders, about "taking on difficult tasks" and the need for "emotional resilience" - and Mr Blair has that urgent look of recognition.

A contributor from the United States talks about the success of schools projects in deprived areas which show the "enormous waste of human potential can be stopped".

Backing track

But is that a sign of what's going to happen here?

Outside the window, providing a rather surreal backing track, there's a military band rehearsing, and for some inexplicable reason they're playing the music that used to accompany the top 40 chart countdown.

And if the Queen lives in a world smelling of fresh paint, Mr Blair must inhabit a world filled with nervous laughter. When he cracks a polite gag about Leonard Cohen the new suits on show in the room are creaking with mirth.

There's a guy near me whose shoes are so shiny I fear for his safety on the stairs.

But maybe the head teachers feel that Mr Blair has something in common with them. Leadership is a lonely business.

And sitting in one of his seminars, there is something of the head teacher about Mr Blair. Determined to be positive about everyone, but with a look of exasperation that it takes so long for the class to get into line.

Mr Blair can still sprinkle prime ministerial importance onto an occasion, the buzz of power, but it's mixed with the air of the frustrated head teacher trying to urge the creaking school bus up a steep hill.

He has barely finished his trademark cup of tea before he has to rush off again, apologising that he has to leave before the Future Leaders have all had their say.

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