Strong leaders always put the children first

Strong leaders don't place exam results and Ofsted gradings before their pupils – they work collaboratively to drive up standards

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On Monday, columnist Claire Foges gained considerable media traction from a piece in The Times entitled, “Our timid leaders can learn from strongmen”.

It’s important to remember that she doesn’t write her own headlines: that’s the sub-editors' job. Nonetheless, I feared an apologia for these tough guys who seem globally to be in the ascendant. As the subtitle declared: “Trump, Putin, Erdogan and Duterte are unpalatable demagogues in many ways but at least they get things done”.

Inevitably, Ms Foges did refer to the “old chestnut” about Mussolini making the trains run on time: but her message was no rant in favour of dictators. On the contrary, this intelligent piece described how Trump’s confrontational style, making peace more readily than the sweet reasonableness of an Obama, poses difficult questions for democratic leadership.

“Unfettered by the need to compromise, unburdened by doubt”, strongmen do indeed get things done. By contrast, we democrats procrastinate feebly, kicking difficult decisions (such as a third runway for Heathrow) down the road or, indeed, into the long grass.

I always tried to run the schools of which I was head in an open, consultative manner, frequently employing the term democracy even if as the head, I was paid to have the final say. But that approach has arguably been unfashionable for the last 20 years.

From the Blair era onwards, politicians have loved to see a strongman style in headship: it’s comforting for governing bodies, too. Nor is it even gender-specific: men and women are equally capable of impressing interview panels by professing a no-nonsense approach and a determination to sort out pupil behaviour and teacher performance alike.

Project this forward into the current decade, and leaders (whether or not you call them superheads) who take no prisoners are at the forefront of forced academisation, moving into a struggling school and “turning them round” with ruthless efficiency.

So far, so good. But, while I was reading about strongmen as leaders, the media were reporting renewed concerns about the sheer number of children excluded from schools. We can’t blame academy chains for all of this: nonetheless, it’s widely known that time after time management brought into a newly-created academy starts by emptying out the most difficult pupils.

Invariably the local authority, however vestigial, is left to pick up the pieces and deal with these children, while the MAT sails on to government plaudits – if somewhat muted nowadays.

Just as ardent Brexiteers assure us that having to stockpile medicines and even food is an acceptable cost of regaining our nation-statehood, perhaps passionate supporters of academisation, so much less accountable then LAs, see the rising level of exclusions and of teachers leaving the profession as acceptable costs in the drive for school improvement.

As a school leader, always troubled by doubt, I found it impossible to discount those “casualties” that would result from a particular hardline policy. I used to say, only half in jest, it takes courage to be wishy-washy. I wouldn’t have been a good war leader: but that wasn’t my job.

Seductive as is the vision of strongman (solo) leadership, strong leadership in a democratic society involves embracing doubts and doubters, working with them and building consensus. Belligerent Brexiteers and willful wreckers even in the Prime Minister‘s own party suggest that consensus is unattainable. But it is they who are wrong. It is not a dictator this country needs, but someone strong enough to bang together the heads of the warring factions and demand compromise. And the wreckers need to be voted out at the next election.

Moral, humane school leadership is values-driven, never compromising on giving the best to every child in school, even if the exam results won’t be quite as good as the governors, MAT or government want. Children come first: teachers a close second.

It’s not easy: but it is strong leadership.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist and musician. He is a former headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and past chair of HMC. He is currently interim headteacher of the Purcell School in Hertfordshire. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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