Through a glass darkly

27th October 2006 at 01:00
Geoff Barton is reluctantly won over by a book which holds up a mirror to headteachers

Being an Effective Headteacher

By Trevor Male

Paul Chapman Publishing pound;19.99

Just who does Trevor Male think he is? A senior lecturer in educational leadership at the University of Hull, he has written a book for headteachers designed to help us "get to grips with the challenges of headship and encourage us to fulfil our potential as educational leaders".

Could someone who has spent more than a decade in academic life really tell us anything useful?

Or as Ricky Gervais's sitcom character Ray Stokes might say: "Is he having a laugh?"

I therefore opened this book with an unhealthy degree of scepticism. I noted the alien language - with headship described as "situational and contingent on context and circumstance" - and was ready to sneer.

And yet, and yet... What Trevor Male's book does is to give a detached and analytical view of headship that provokes some fascinating insights into a job that's so all-consuming we can lose an ability to step back from it. He shows the rhythms of long-term headship, the way the early stages of taking on a school require a highly visible hands-on approach, and how in a later, well-established role "headteachers become less obvious and their behaviour goes almost unnoticed as colleagues, empowered both by their liberation and their own abilities, take immediate responsibility for decision-making and leadership activity".

This is the embodiment of Lao Tse's aphorism: "Of a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, the people will say, 'We did it ourselves.'"

It certainly isn't a book for wannabe heads: it isn't "How to be an effective headteacher". The chapters on applying for headship told me little that was original or unexpected. But for insights into what research says about the role of the headteacher, for an account of the changing nature of the job and reflections on building the capacity for leadership across the school at various levels, the book provides a mirror as if held up by someone who knows us a little, but not too well.

With an odd mix of objectivity and coyness, it lets us take a peek at our progress, to see how we are developing in a role that he describes as "the personification of a school in action". It was a mirror I found revealing, if not entirely flattering. That in itself makes it worth reading.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI school, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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