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Why a flashy suit does not make you a good headteacher

School leaders should be judged on what they do, says Jarlath O'Brien, not by what they appear to be

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In my first year as a headteacher, I used to get an occasional ego boost when meeting prospective parents for tours. Occasionally one would say, “You look too young to be the headteacher”. Cue mental double-fist pump.

The passage of time and the cumulative toll of the job mean that those days are long gone, but it always set me thinking on the many myths about good leadership. In the 26 February issue of TES, I detail five myths all schools need to be wary of, below is a preview of the feature detailing two of them.  

1. Wrinkles

Young, but not too young. As a profession, we get very exercised if someone happens to be appointed to a leadership position at an age that we suspect indicates they lack the sufficient experience. I remember being asked in my interview about my age in a very roundabout way, and I responded that, as a nation, we seemed to be comfortable with a Chancellor of the Exchequer who was my age but got quite twitchy about people of a similar age running a very small school.

Prospective heads should be judged on what they have done in their career and on their potential, not on their date of birth. The same goes for when we are appointing leadership positions in our schools.

2. Shoulder pads

I’ve heard a lot of people comment lately that Mr Corbyn dresses like an RE teacher (that’s a nice brown jacket, by the way, Mr Bennett). It reminds me of the comments that were passed about an exceptional former colleague of mine who ran a PRU. She had a penchant for baggy, cable-knit sweaters and was thus labelled “mumsy”, itself a proxy for weak and soft, in the pejorative sense. Sharpness of suit and shininess of shoe – and a military bearing to match – seem to reassure and convey authority, control and steadfastness. Anything less and there may be a hint of the wet, liberal type or the dangerous radical about you.

In reality, clothes tell you little about how someone leads. We need to be clear about dispelling false assumptions and ensure in our own hiring decisions that we do not fall foul of the same stereotyping.

Jarlath O'Brien is headteacher at Carwarden House Community School in Surrey

This is an article from the 26 February edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. For further information on TES leadership subscriptions, go to

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