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Review - Fight or's all in a day's work

Headteacher's memoir tickles ribs and tugs at the heartstrings

Headteacher's memoir tickles ribs and tugs at the heartstrings

Life as a headteacher these days doesn't come with an unreservedly positive recommendation, but for Mike Kent it remains simply the best job in the world. In the early 1980s, Kent took on the headship of Comber Grove School, a dilapidated, under-subscribed primary in a deprived part of South London, and transformed it into one of the capital's most popular schools.

Anyone who is familiar with Mike Kent's TES columns will know how much he loves teaching, teachers and children. A Life at the Chalkface is his love letter to 30 eventful years in a job he found endlessly fascinating and challenging.

The book begins with his appointment in the days following the Plowden report - when there was no set curriculum and the testing of children was virtually unknown - through the introduction of the national curriculum, the dismantling of the Inner London Education Authority and the rise of Ofsted and league tables. It was a steep learning curve but Kent's enthusiasm remained undiminished. We learn that his problems didn't just consist of exam results and Ofsted inspectors; he also had to cope with an infestation of pigeons in the roof, a full-scale fight between parents at a school play and a baby pushed into the arms of a pupil by a parent who was desperate to get to work.

Stars of the show

As a school leader, Kent soon discovered that adults could be more difficult than children, recalling the supply teacher who took him to a race discrimination tribunal, the work-shy teaching assistant who constantly crept off for cigarette breaks, the newly qualified teacher obsessed with ghost stories and the teacher who couldn't throw anything away.

But the real stars of the book are the children. We meet the ex-pupil who became a society thief, the child who interrupted assemblies to give impromptu dinosaur lectures and the student who quizzed a chancellor of the exchequer on his love life during a school visit.

However challenging Kent's pupils, he never gives up on them and his determination to remain a hands-on school leader is clearly at the heart of his school's success. Whether building huge dinosaur models with the students, setting up a school orchestra or arguing with fire officials who brand the children's beautiful art displays a fire hazard, he is tireless in his crusade to provide the very best experiences.

Kent's ability to tell a story is enviable and his anecdotes are shot through with the humour and sense of proportion that can be so lacking in education today. At times hilarious, occasionally tragic, these events in a London primary school demonstrate that no two days in headship are the same. In a world of league tables and assessment spreadsheets, this book stands as a testament to all that is best in primary education. It should be used as a training manual for all new headteachers.

A Life At The Chalkface by Mike Kent is published by Bretwalda Books at pound;11.99. Jo Brighouse is a primary teacher in the Midlands. Read Mike's column here

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