In the thick of it

EXTREME HEADSHIP. By Phil McNulty. Trafford pound;13.50, plus ppTo order tel: 08452 309601

EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP: ambiguity, professionals and managerialism. By Eric Hoyle and Mike Wallace. Sage pound;24.99

You couldn't find two books more unlike each other. Phil McNulty's, distilled from his 11 years as head of Shorefields comprehensive in Toxteth, Liverpool, is awash with practical ideas; the "do's" and "don'ts" of schooling. The other, by academics Eric Hoyle and Mike Wallace, is provisional and tentative. McNulty's comes from being in the thick of it: the other from the position of skilled and experienced observers. The first book, in primary colours, is in your face and definitive; the other is in pastel shades of understatement and the provisional.

Though I'm sure it didn't feel like that at the time, greatness was thrust upon Phil McNulty in 1993, after three years as deputy head of the same school. Eleven chapters, one for each year until he retired in 2004, make up a narrative account. When he wants to make a point, he puts a sentence in bold: there are 200 of these emboldened sentences in 250 pages. They range from the resoundingly declaratory to the subtly incisive. Each chapter ends with "learning points", 280 in all. The book is a vivid description of what it was like to be the head of a "written off" school in the most challenging inner-city surroundings during the 10 or so years either side of the millennium.

Against the odds, McNulty and his colleagues turned Shorefields from a school with fewer than 50 pupils entering Year 7 to one with an intake of more than 200. We read of all the trials and tribulations that got the school to this point and how the trench warfare with councillors, governors and LEA officials is eventually won. We see the impact of Excellence in Cities, live through Ofsted inspections and bids for specialist status, and empathise with the relentless quest for exam results kept in perspective by other pressing daily issues including, with special intensity, the usual ones of attendance, behaviour, exclusion, families and community. There are some unfamiliar ones too, such as some governors actively campaigning against the school in the early and most difficult years. We are in the midst of the turmoil for almost all of the book and while it's possible to see that Phil McNulty as head had the essential and enviable capacity of successful leaders - to hover above the incessant crises while being in the thick of them - it's a pity that he didn't write more in the reflective synthesis vein of his concluding chapter.

The two books connect at the point where McNulty describes being involved in a Private Finance Initiative with Jarvis Educational Services. Hoyle and Wallace use Jarvis's winning of a DfES contract to improve 700 of the worst performing secondary schools to emphasise their guiding idea that the "ironic perspective" is an essential lens through which to see school improvement. The outcry among educationists at the appointment of Jarvis was huge because its parent company, Jarvis Engineering, had appeared spectacularly unsuccessful in maintaining the rail network. Definitions of the subtleties of the "ironic perspective" form Hoyle and Wallace's starting point. They explain the law of "unintended consequences", which so bedevils those introducing desirable but complex change at any level.

Inevitably, much of the illustration is of successive governments' educational reforms, starting in 1988. There is, however, an excellently described vignette of the Leeds LEA's own earlier failed attempt to reform primary education and, ironically, of how central government used that failure to justify their own takeover of curricular and organisational power at the centre and then, ironically, to repeat the same mistakes.

Hoyle and Wallace illustrate with penetrating insight the perverse outcome of tightening management and leadership so much that it leads to three different forms, each with the same five characteristics, of what they call "managerialism": excessive micromanagement of schools in a sometimes futile and self-defeating quest for success.

They analyse and clarify the responses of heads to the 19 major reforms imposed on all schools since 1989. The authors suggest that most leadership responses are "transmissional" and "compliant" rather than "transformational" in style. But they have little time for the transformational and conclude with the view that the "ironic perspective" with "temperate leadership and management" is what schools need. Sadly, this apparently combines "optimism without hope".

God help the children in schools led by such people. For the sake of our future, let's have schools staffed not by optimists or pessimists, but by realists imbued with the energy, enthusiasm and hope that transforms children's lives. If schools do need irony - and they do, because otherwise they would be damagingly humourless places - let it be the irony of Ted Wragg, whose life was an example of hope, commitment and a determination to make a difference.

So, two contrasting books for different audiences: one for headteachers, the other for researchers, higher degree students and academics. I should not delay in reading whichever one appeals. Irony and ambiguity are infectious, you see: but so is hope.

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser for the London Schools Challenge

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