“Part Rocky, part Henry V and part Mrs Doubtfire”, was the recipe for success in school leadership offered by Ofsted’s outgoing chief inspector last week.
Sir Michael Wilshaw used his speech at a TES leadership conference to make a plea for more of the “mavericks” who he said were “desperately needed in headteachers’ offices.
“A pretty ordinary education system – unfortunately, we still have one – needs people who are flamboyant, colourful and, yes, downright strange,” he said. “In other words, we need extraordinary people.”
But Sir Michael’s call for more “odd” headteachers with “a hint of menace” and “outsize personalities”; for more “towering characters” who make “incredible impressions” in the classroom and in the corridors; has not got down as well as he might have hoped.
“I’m not certain I like the use of the term ‘maverick’,” Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told TES.
“What we want are confident leaders. That’s about being a genuine person.”
And – as anyone whose English teacher made them stand on their desk in the manner of Dead Poets’ Society’s Mr Keating would be able to attest to – flamboyance is a hard trait to manufacture on demand. The best leaders, according to Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, “lead from a position of honesty and humility”, rather than constantly “waiting for people to see through the act”.
‘I don’t need his permission’
There are also questions of definition. Mike Fairclough, the gun-toting, quadbike-riding head of West Rise Junior School in East Sussex, points out that anyone who cultivates their own maverick tendencies because the Ofsted chief inspector tells them to do so instantly disqualifies themselves from the category.
“I’m not waiting for permission from Sir Michael Wilshaw to be a maverick,” he said. “I think part of being one is not necessarily doing what the establishment tells you to do.”
Equally, if every teacher was a maverick, there actually would no longer be any mavericks, said Bernard Trafford, headteacher of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School.
Writing for TES the day after Sir Michael delivered his speech at the Liberating Leaders conference at Bedales School in Hampshire last week, Dr Trafford said that mavericks “stand out in our memory really because they were inspirational and different”.
Besides, added Mr Fairclough, attention-grabbing quirkiness does not guarantee competence. “There can be people who are less maverick who run absolutely brilliant schools,” he said. “There are straight-down-the-line heads who are outstanding as well.”
And mavericks cannot exist in their own lawless Wild West of education, experts have pointed out. They flourish or fail in a broader educational context.
“The educational world in which we nowadays operate is suspicious of mavericks,” Mr Trafford wrote. “The system is hostile to those reluctant to fill in forms.
“There is little space now for any school leader who wants to do things differently, or even take risks. If you enforce conformity and crush divergent views – as successive governments have done with your help, Sir Michael – don’t blame schools or their leaders for lacking the courage to be wacky or different.”
Speaking at the Liberating Leaders conference after Sir Michael, Geoff Barton, head of King Edward VI School in Suffolk, said the chief inspector’s maverick tales were from a time that no longer exists.
“The question we should ask Sir Michael is: have you created more mavericks or fewer?” Mr Barton said. “I think the leadership that we need to show to youngsters is about having principled values.”
Teachers ‘hamstrung by a barrage of directives’
What needs to change, in order for school leaders to become more innovative, creative and maverick?
Rebecca Buckle, assistant head of Clanfield Junior School in Hampshire, said: “We are hamstrung by the barrage of directives from government. It’s hard to be creative when the stakes are so high for the tests that children take.”
Julie Summerfield, headteacher of Horndean Technology College, a Hampshire secondary, said: “Everything is so top-down. That stops you being as maverick as you could be, because you’re straitjacketed into making sure the school looks good in the league tables.”
Phaedra Gowen, chemistry teacher and housemistress at St Edward’s independent boarding school in Oxford, said: “To be innovative, you have to be able to operate within the constraints you have. You have to take people along with you and have to be very certain in your new idea.”
Danielle Harlan, founder and CEO of the California-based Center for Advancing Leadership and Human Potential, said: “The best leaders keep a mindset of humility. The best leaders will sometimes say their mentor is a junior-level person, who gives them insight at ground level. But a lot of people have imposter syndrome [a belief they don’t deserve success], and asking for help is hard if people think it makes them look incompetent.”