By Clarissa Farr
Publisher: William Collins
Details: 304pp; £16.99
“Leaders need to tell stories, and good stories have a beginning that makes you want to read on,” says Clarissa Farr.
She has certainly shown her talent here as the teller of a good story. In The Making of Her, Farr brings to bear her many years of experience as head of two prestigious all-girl schools – Queenswood School and St Paul’s Girls’ School – to give some thoughtful observations on the challenges facing all of us working in education today.
Part memoir, part love-letter to the mad, wonderful world of schools and school leadership, Farr’s book brings to life her own experiences and interweaves them with wider reflections on education in the UK today.
Journey through the school year
Using the conceit of a journey through the school year, Farr tackles many issues recognisable to headteachers in the chronological order in which they frequently appear in schools. For example, September talks of new beginnings, the importance of fostering of a sense of belonging within a school community, and also about how to encourage new parents to trust that the school is doing the right thing.
This is a theme that she returns to in May, when she talks about how parents can be a “good” parent to both child and school. This does not mean being seen and not heard, of course, but I am sure that many of us will long for the moment when we can deploy the line: “You wouldn’t tell a surgeon how to remove your appendix so, in the nicest way, why would you think that [my] teachers need your advice on how to teach?”
However, Farr does also recognise that schools play a delicately balanced role in reconciling frequently time-poor, anxious and guilt-ridden parents with their truculent and uncommunicative teenagers.
Farr also makes the time to discuss the difficulties experienced by members of the "sandwich generation" today, caught between the demands of ageing parents and of young children. She observes that, while those with children experience a number of protections and accommodations in law, those managing the commitments of looking after their parents have no such safety net. She says it is therefore incumbent on us to ensure that employees facing this dilemma are treated with compassion and humanity.
Humanity comes to the fore time and again, as when Farr asks us to consider our impact as teachers, particularly in our throwaway comments – being called the “chief pudding” by a science teacher in her youth has clearly lingered.
It is perhaps to be expected that, as the former head of two highly successful girls' schools, Farr has more than a little to say about the education of young women. While making a sound case for single-sex education, she does not pull any punches: all schools must, she argues, prove that they are adding value (by whatever measure) to their students if they are to survive. I don’t think any of us could disagree with such a statement.
In fact, there are few places where I do disagree with Farr’s point of view, which is hardly surprising, given that I am the head of a girls’ school myself.
No lover of technology
Yet there are a couple of points upon which we do diverge. Farr is evidently no lover of technology, and is quick to lay the blame for many of the challenges faced by today’s teenagers at its door. I take her point on the speed with which decisions are now made and reputations damaged, but I cannot bring myself to agree wholeheartedly.
I also could not quite align myself with her take on the current exam system as a good “test of memory, mental organisation and nerve – all skills worth having in the 21st century”. All well and good if exams are your forte. But we know that, for very many students, they are not.
I particularly enjoyed some of the analogies she uses, from a school being akin to a plane taking off at the start of term (lifting off just as you think you are going to run out of tarmac), to the incoming head of a school being likened to a heavily laden passenger trying to board a moving train.
Personal anecdotes from her school and teaching career appear, and they are used generously and very well in illustrating particular points.
Farr has a good deal of experience across all aspects of secondary education and, while some may sniff at the relevance to the majority of a book written by the former high mistress of St Paul’s, I would urge them to think again.
It is a warm and witty book, which raised a number of wry smiles of recognition, and is full of hard-earned wisdom and affection for our schools and all that goes on in them.
Gwen Byrom is a headteacher, and was president of the Girls’ School Association in 2018
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