Review - Books - Cool head in the hot seat

17th December 2010 at 00:00

Head Over Heels: In the Hot Seat at Millfield School

By Christopher Martin

Moonrise Press


Head Over Heels is a first-hand account of leadership in one of the country's best-known and most successful independent schools.

For the last four years of his eight-year headship at Millfield (part of a 35-year career in education), Christopher Martin kept a diary of anecdotes that made each day memorable to him; some quite banal, others extraordinary. Cumulatively, these accounts form the book Head Over Heels: In the Hot Seat at Millfield School and give us a snapshot of the hectic life of a headteacher in the country's largest co-educational boarding school.

It also carries an endorsement from former Labour education secretary, Estelle, now Baroness, Morris. Her preface enthuses: "This book is not just a valuable insight into life in an educational hot seat, but testament to the power of teachers to change lives."

The book is also testament to Churchill's famous observation that headmasters are more powerful than prime ministers.

It takes a while to get used to the style in which this book is written. The first chapter spans a whole year, from August 1994 to August 1995, with each paragraph jumping from one episode to the next. I'm sure there was a lengthy editorial discussion about whether to include diary dates and times to explain the juxtaposition of events. I'm not sure that there is an easy answer to that deliberation.

Some incidents are entirely inconsequential, as Martin himself points out in the foreword. And while their purpose may be to offer an insight into the range of activities facing the headteacher of any large boarding school, they can also make the account a bit disjointed. That said, he also shares many comical, some tragic and other fascinating happenings.

I imagine this book will captivate anyone with an interest in education. Teachers from any school will find parallels with Martin's account in their own experience, although some incidents will be far removed from the average school. One Saturday morning, for example, Martin recalls: "I have to suspend a boy who has, for some inexplicable reason, fed gin to his horse. He has offered no compelling clue to explain his actions: 'I just thought it was a good idea at the time'."

I was struck, however, by the similarity of Martin's work to my own as head of a large comprehensive in London. The location and the background of the pupils may be different, but in the end schools are schools and children are children.

The sheer scale of things at Millfield would bewilder even the most experienced head. There are 1,250 pupils from 50 countries, 28 boarding houses and 190 tutors. Some of the off-campus houses are lavishly equipped, one with a golf course, a polo pitch and even its own church. It is certainly not your average comprehensive. Perhaps this is what makes Martin's account all the more interesting. As he acknowledges: "There can't be many schools in which a #163;1-million consultancy in Malaysia and a new English-as-a-foreign-language centre come up in a governors' meeting under AOB."

Millfield has an international reputation for excellence, with high-profile business people, politicians, athletes, royalty and celebrities choosing to send their children there. You will recognise many names in Head Over Heels, including Boris Yeltsin, whose grandson attended Millfield while Martin was there, and Pierce Brosnan and Nigel Mansell, who both sent their children there.

All headteachers have to deal with demanding parents, but you can imagine just how exigent some of these extremely wealthy and powerful individuals are. It is to Martin's credit that he deals with them all in such a calm and collected way.

Alongside the plethora of sporting and academic successes at Millfield, it is also reassuring to read that, like schools across the country, its teachers have to deal with "normal" issues that arise with teenagers: smoking in the toilets, theft, bullying, and so on. There are also unpleasant issues such as self-harming, overdoses and, tragically, the death of a young girl when illicit birthday celebrations go wrong. Being a school in the spotlight, more of these issues than Martin would have liked have ended up in the press.

Despite his hectic schedule (sometimes working a 97-hour week), the disasters, and the sheer exhaustion of the job, Martin reiterates throughout the book that he had the best job in the world. It is clear that the triumphs and successes of Millfield, its pupils and staff fed his enthusiasm and passion.

Leadership is about making calm and sensible decisions in the face of countervailing forces. Martin's diary demonstrates this quality on each page. It is essential reading for aspiring heads.


Christopher Martin began teaching at Westminster School after national service with the 10th Gurkha Rifles in Malaysia. His subsequent career included headships at Bristol Cathedral School and, for the last eight years of his 35 years in teaching, Millfield School in Somerset. He has served as a member of the Privy Council education committee and is president of the National Association for Gifted Children.


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