'Leadership in public service – including in schools – is too punitive and too unforgiving'

School leaders can learn from Theresa May's speech last week, writes ASCL leader Geoff Barton as he remembers his own humiliating and painful experience

Geoff Barton

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It’s now a week or so since we watched Theresa May’s so-called "make or break" speech to the Conservative party faithful in Manchester. There’s no need for us to rake over what went wrong. While some will have laughed and some will have sneered, anyone in a position of leadership whose role involves public speaking is likely to have been thinking: “In a very different context, that could have been me.”

I speak as someone who, in my first week of headship, gave an assembly to the Year 11 students who, as it was Easter, were a final step away from their long-awaited study leave. I told them that we would be marking their time at our school with something called an achievement assembly – a celebration of their talents. I also announced that we would also be insisting through the exam season there would be a no-nonsense adherence to our stricter rules on school uniform – shoes, not trainers, shirts tucked in, no unauthorised facial piercings.

I did, in other words, what any new headteacher in any new post is likely to do. I delivered a bit of feel-good news alongside a message that this place was now "under new management".

I stood in front of those 300 or so Year 11 students, their arms folded as they glared at me, their tutors around the assembly hall watching the new headteacher in action. And the students then signalled what they thought of my announcement. They booed.

The humiliation of that first public outing kept me awake for several nights. I might have expected that these students of all students – those who saw themselves as the unvanquished soon-to-leave veterans of the school – might be unimpressed with some balding, big-chinned new bloke’s innovations.

Leadership challenges

It was the public nature of the negative response, in front of tutors gazing on in embarrassed disbelief, that made it so painful, so humiliating, to go through.

Such is leadership – filled with joys, but also with occasional moments of private and public ignominy. It’s a feature of leadership that sometimes our most uncomfortable experiences are visible, played out in front of onlookers, apparently inescapable.

Any school or college leader who has addressed large crowds of pupils, young or old, will know that it’s a matter of skill, planning, self-confidence, bluff and luck.

Last Wednesday, Theresa May’s luck was against her. The expressions of her cabinet reminded me of the faces of those Year 11 tutors back in 2002 – a mixture of horror, toe-curling embarrassment, and helplessness.

Never does leadership seem lonelier than when you’re on your own in a crowd, appraised and judged.

I watched and assumed that Theresa May’s premiership would be finished within the week. Her situation seemed too publicly catastrophic, too humiliating. But then I followed the wider public’s reaction. It seems that what they saw was a fellow human being in adversity – struggling through a heavy cold, mocked by a comedian, gawped at by her colleagues, and apparently stranded on stage because no one in security thought that perhaps a Prime Minister should be protected from an intruder.

So while the pundits sneered, the public – in the main – empathised.

Accountability measures

It’s a sign of how punitive, how unforgiving public service is. It’s the same for so many school and college leaders where the harsh accountability measures that are applied in judging education lead to far too many leaders being exposed to misguided quick-fix judgements that leave them bereft and sometimes jobless.

It’s surely time for a change of mindset, for a recognition that leadership isn’t an act of heroism. We’re all human beings, most of us doing our best in often difficult circumstances.

If one lesson from Mrs May’s difficult afternoon in Manchester is a more forgiving view of the frailties of leadership and the need for less toxic judgements and accountability, then we will be doing an important service for the next generation of school and college leaders.

After all, we need that generation to take on the responsibilities of continuing to extend opportunities for excellence to all our young people. And that will require leadership styles that are determined and resilient, but which also acknowledge that sometimes, whoever we are, things go wrong. It’s part of being human.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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