Review - Books - Back-page sage is model leader

17th June 2011 at 01:00

Tales from the Head's Room: life in a London primary school

Mike Kent



I have been reading the back of The TES for more than 50 years. "Get a life, grandpa," advised five-year-old Poppy last Friday when she spotted me in my weekly ritual. "Yes, he's a sad old boy," agreed my wife, vaguely irritated that I wasn't doing the washing up. In vain I explained that everyone in education does the same thing.

So I know my stuff when it comes to back columns of The TES: indeed it could be my special subject if I ever wanted to cause myself excruciating embarrassment by entering Mastermind. It has changed over those years. When I started out, Tom Howarth, the famous head of a prestigious independent school, wrote it. It was a more stuffy paper then in a more deferential age. Certainly the best and wittiest in the first 40 years was the late, great Ted Wragg. I thought he would be irreplaceable and that his passing would be a case of "things ain't what they used to be" not merely for the back page but the whole paper.

Then along came Mike Kent. Now I had heard of him as an "ornery head from south of the river" - the sort who would keep local authority education officers aware that even when they did something right "they were no better than they ought to be".

Personally I always liked that sort of head even though they were a pain in the backside because they were often (they would say always) right.

Once Mike Kent had got hold of the back page and made it his own, he showed he was much more than that. He writes like a dream. I hope he shares his creative writing with his Year 6 children because we all know how kids respond to a role-model where writing is concerned.

I have always wondered why teachers of Year 6 are such good role models when it comes to listening, speaking and reading but are so shy of doing the same with writing. Is that why writing lags so badly at age 11?

But back to Mike and this book, a selection of some of his best TES columns. They tell of school life as seen from the head's room and are a study in school management, leadership and teaching and learning. All of human life as seen through the eyes of a teacher who happens to be a headteacher.

Mike knows his staff, all his children and their parents and he selects memorable incidents from their interactions with another and brings them vividly to life. They are a wonderful kaleidoscope of triumph, farce and sometimes tragedy and despair. But three-quarters have a sense of humour which causes a wry smile and sometimes makes you laugh out loud.

You sense that underpinning all of "school-life-according-to-Mike Kent" is faith. I don't mean a religious faith, but one in the potential of people to thrive and do well if only we the teachers can, as one Victorian put it, "cut ourselves into the shape of a key which should have the one merit of a key, that of unlocking the mind and opening the shut chambers of the heart". That is what Mike Kent has done for 40-odd years. And each year he keeps coming back for more.

Naturally the butt of his humour is often bureaucrats, whether national government, local authority, electricity board or Ofsted. This is where his wit becomes more acerbic. Indeed, his brushes with the latter have proved what a courageous person he is.

But he is at his best with the daily life of the school and its families and community. You can see he treats crisis as fun and an inevitable bedfellow of headship. In sharing this through an enviable ability to tell stories with strong lashings of comedy, he lightens the lives of the rest of us who know only too well the world he occupies. And he does so by use of a format which moves through the school year from September to August. So it is a book to be dipped into on a weekly basis.

It is an ideal present for anybody who has been, is or wants to be, a head. It should be provided free by the National College for School Leadership as a recommended read for all who take an NPQH. That would really please Mike.


Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary School in south London and a TES columnist. He has worked in primary education for more than 50 years and is a trainer for the National College for School Leadership. Sir Tim Brighouse has spent his entire career in education, most recently as London schools commissioner, and now works in a number of advisory and non-executive roles.

The verdict - 910.

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