The good, the bad ... and the plain weird

Copying Clint isn't enough: heads should be `odd', says Wilshaw

Richard Vaughan

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First he said the best headteachers should picture themselves as Clint Eastwood's characters in his spaghetti westerns, "fighting for righteousness". Now Sir Michael Wilshaw has more outlandish advice for budding heads.

If you are to succeed as a school leader, according to the chief inspector of Ofsted, you have to be a little bit "odd".

The tip came in a speech this week to members of Future Leaders, a programme that places young, driven teachers in senior leadership roles. Sir Michael, the former principal of Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, East London, told them that as well as being a "lone warrior" who is capable of "fighting the good fight", it pays for heads to be "strange".

To illustrate his point, Sir Michael referred to a former colleague of his who had an unconventional method of catching pupils who were misbehaving on the bus to and from school.

"A lot of his children used to be bussed in from Essex, and there were occasional behavioural problems on the bus," the chief inspector said. "This head used to dress up in disguise, put a false beard on, a floppy hat and dark glasses.

"He would jump on the bus he thought the kids were messing about on and he would gradually disrobe to reveal his true identity."

While Sir Michael was not encouraging his audience to don flat caps and prowl buses, he did argue that the best heads think outside the box. "Don't be afraid to be slightly maverick," he said. "Do things out of the ordinary; don't necessarily be a conformist. Strange is sometimes good. The best heads are often quite odd people - I think I was one of them."

It is not the first time that Sir Michael has encouraged heads to do things their own way. He previously likened himself to the Clint Eastwood character Dirty Harry, after spending years as a headteacher in some of East London's most difficult schools and being forced to "sort out" their problems.

In a different speech last year, he chose another example from Eastwood's repertoire - that of a gun-toting wild west character - to suggest that heads construct a "tough guy" image. The country, he suggested, needed heads who showed "more ego" and were not afraid of exercising their power.

"Take that scene in Pale Rider when the baddies are shooting up the town, the mists dissipate and Clint is there," he said at the time. "Being a headteacher is all about being the lone warrior, fighting for righteousness, fighting the good fight, as powerful as any chief executive."

Sir Michael was once described by education secretary Michael Gove as his "hero" for his impressive feats at Mossbourne. During his time at the academy, it recorded impressive results, with more than 80 per cent of pupils gaining at least five good GCSEs. It also became synonymous with strict discipline, a hard-line approach to uniforms, no talking between lessons and even a "no hugging" policy among pupils.

Sir Michael's success at Mossbourne prompted one last piece of advice for his audience of aspiring heads this week. "My message is: don't be afraid to apply for a headship in a school that requires improvement," he said. "If I was in your position, I would like to go into a school like that, and if you've got anything about you, you should too. This is where you can make the biggest difference."

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Richard Vaughan

Richard has been writing about politics, policy and technology in education for nearly five years after joining TES in 2008. He joined TES from the building press having been a reporter and then later news editor at the Architects’ Journal. Before then he studied at Cardiff University’s school of journalism. Richard can be found tweeting at @richardvaughan1

Find me on Twitter @RichardVaughan1

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