Leadership for starters

2nd September 2011 at 01:00

Brilliant Head Teacher

By Iain Erskine

pearson education (pound;14.99)

4 out of 5

Don't be put off by the title. It chafes the Scottish proclivity to self- deprecation. It's one of an education series entitled "Brilliant." and is probably not of the author's choosing, since the book is certainly not a paean to heroic headship - far from it.

Erskine's primary school is at the sharp end of a deprived community and he has faced a lot of challenges - no leafy suburb head, he. The book is aimed at those intending to take the next step in their career to headship and is certainly an easy read - far from the worthy academic treatises with extensive footnotes and bibliographies recommended for formal courses like the Standard for Headship. It deserves an audience, both as an introduction to headship and because of the author's philosophy and values. Read and reflect.

The book is divided into 11 chapters and has merit as an introduction to the challenges and complexity of headship. It covers a lot of ground - and herein lies a weakness, because I wanted the author to go into detail far more frequently than he does in a number of areas critical to managing and leading your school successfully. (There's a successive better book waiting to be written about this.) The content of each chapter is accessible, though the stylistic insertion of "brilliant" tips, examples, dos and don'ts, case studies and recaps in greyscale are no more than educational semaphore - they add little to his core messages.

Much of what Erskine says is not new to experienced heads - but might set off a train of thought in less experienced colleagues, and several of the sections might stimulate good discussion in mentoring sessions. As Scottish education implements Curriculum for Excellence, statements like "no really successful school is about standardisation and uniformity" offer encouragement. He certainly is not afraid to pick and choose which government-led initiatives are worthy and of benefit to his children, because he clearly embraces his stated moral purpose: to make a positive difference to children's lives.

One of the best chapters in the book is near the end, on curriculum, where Erskine is clearly out of sympathy with the centralising tendency to dictate the primacy of knowledge-based learning which is at odds with his own desire to nurture creativity. I can't imagine he'll be invited to tea with Michael Gove any time soon! He speaks here in this chapter about preparing children for an uncertain future and illustrates the Oasis project in one of the best case studies in the book (as it runs to four pages, rather than two paragraphs), where he works collaboratively with other like-minded schools.

He has a keen appreciation of how the best-planned days can be thrown off course by unexpected events - and that most of us secretly relish responding to crisis while eschewing it as a daily leadership strategy. He is generous to colleagues and acutely aware of the need to cherish parents, governors and local opinion. An English head would do well to read his chapter about Ofsted and a Scottish head would do well to be grateful for our own more supportive inspectorate.

About the Author

Iain Erskine was a secondary PE teacher and head of department before re- routing into the primary sector. He has been a headteacher for 15 years and is now head of Fulbridge School and Children's Centre in a deprived area of Peterborough.

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