Review - View from the top - An authentic insight into headship

Geoff Barton

With his book The Reality of School Leadership, author Richard Parker seeks to offer readers a flavour of life in senior management. At our school, we run a home-grown leadership course designed to give subject leaders and heads of year a similar insight.

The most popular element is called "leadership team speed dating". The concept is simple: middle leaders have five minutes with a member of the senior leadership team to find out the warts-and-all reality of their role. Then they move on to the next person.

Thus, subject leaders hear, for example, what our business manager, pastoral manager and deputy headteacher actually do each day. They talk to me, too, and they usually ask the same questions: "Is being a headteacher really stressful?", "Do you ever get to see your family?", "Do you worry about getting sacked?".

They get a glimpse into the bittersweet realities of school leadership and I get a glimpse of the way headship is perceived from below - generally grim, it seems from the questions posed.

This has made me realise that it is probably in the interests of principals to make our jobs look tough. It is easy for us to project a tacit message that the role is heroically punishing - all about stress, long hours and the constant threat of dismissal.

And while that adds to the mythology of headship, it may also be putting off some good potential candidates from applying. This is a disaster, as our system has never needed great leaders more.

What I like about this book is that it gives the truest account of headship that I have seen. Parker was headteacher of two large and successful schools and is on something of a mission to paint an honest picture of the job. As he puts it: "I do not want this to be another research-based book on leadership." Instead, it is the story of headship told from the inside.

The book is not a simple manual on how to be a principal. It is rather more thoughtful than that, with chapters such as "The challenges and rewards of headship", "Finding your own leadership style" and "How to keep the school buzzing". It covers things that I have not read in other, similar, texts (and I have read a lot) and the way it does this is distinctive. Parker visited dozens of primary and secondary headteachers and let them talk about the realities of their day-to-day jobs. Their voices punctuate the book.

What that brings to the texts is something that Parker and I would argue is central to the best school leadership - authenticity.

Thus, you get inside accounts of the inevitable neuroses and worries of principals, but also their joys and coping strategies. You get what our speed-dating game gives: an insight into whether the job might be for you.

In writing a book so refreshingly clear, thoughtful and, ultimately, optimistic about modern headship, Parker and David Middlewood have done the profession a great service.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, England. The Reality of School Leadership by Richard Parker with David Middlewood is published by Bloomsbury Education.

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Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Find me on Twitter @RealGeoffBarton

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