Tom Bennett

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Grow a pair: leadership in schools, and childhood heroes are back in the news

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Draper: unconcerned by Value Added.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Hackney’s celebrated Mossbourne Academy has been making headlines by suggesting that school leaders need to be just that- leaders, rather than democratic pansies more interested in harmony and coalition than decisions and actions. True dat: schools are ravenous beasts, bubbling with hundreds of agendas (the kids, the staff, the LEA, the parents, the governors), and if there’s one thing I learned running night clubs in the Wild West of Soho, it was that if you want to lead people you need to actually want to lead them. It meant that, even if you had reservations about one’s right to dictate to another, there it was- that was your job, and if you felt uncomfortable with it then there were plenty of other people who would be happy to oblige. Or worse, you could just hang on and try to ride every wave that surged beneath you. You could do that for quite a while, actually. You would never achieve very much of what you set out to do, and by the time you left things would be how they panned out, rather than where you wanted them. But if you were happy with that kind of existence then it was possible.

Or you could try to be a leader. Which meant discovering what your views were, and deciding that was what you would pursue. I learned to my cost that if you didn’t have strong views about how they should be, then you would never create anything worth while. Schools are bodies made up of hundreds of sentient cells, all with their own views about how the world should work. They can’t all win. And if you try to keep as many people as possible happy, all you create are the conditions where the unhappiness is maximised. I liken it to a classroom: can you imagine how it would look if you said that every student could do what they wanted? Of course you can- some classes are like that already.

‘Hello, OfSTED. Let’s get you out of that dress.’

The point is that the teacher has to set the agenda for the benefit of the majority. I think that ever since the invention of democracy we have somehow absorbed the belief that democracy is the best and only way to run every institution, at any level. That may be true at a national and international level, but the closer to the private sphere we get the poorer that paradigm looks- it’s like using telescopes to examine tissue samples. No parental relationship can run by the single transferable vote; no first-past-the-post can govern the workings of a factory. And governance by committee doesn’t work in a school, or as I like to describe them, ‘dream factories’.

The ironic thing is that when presented by strong leadership, people often complain about it; but when it vanishes, everyone realises that they miss the good old days, and can the grown-ups come back? That doesn’t always translate to the national theatre, but there are echoes. And something that always strikes me about leadership is that I’m not entirely sure that it can be taught in any meaningful way. Oh, I know there are courses and INSETS and colleges and expensive three day residential coaching clubs where you can drop a month’s salary on some hard-on with a clip-on microphone telling you how to Awaken the Giant Within. I’ve been on some. But did anyone come away with anything other than a vague sense that being a leader somehow meant walking up to people and telling them how awesome you were?

Leadership, like status, is one of those metaphysical entities that exists in a non-materialist way; it’s a relationship, a subjective state that exists between two people. If you possess an official rank of some sort it helps, particularly with adults who acknowledge that rank. Being possessed of a certain character is enormously helpful- stubborn, single minded, confident are three qualities that spring to mind. It possibly also helps if you’re a bit unbalanced too, maybe slightly scary or unusually charismatic in a fashion that usually masks enormous insecurity or enormous levels of self-possession. But I think I might side with Nietzsche when he said that character isn’t a quality you possess; it’s a description of how you acted, thereby making it a retrospective assessment of your career and character, rather than something that can be obviously emulated.

Plato and Plutarch saw leadership as a list of virtues one had to possess; in the 50s Stogdill and Mann believed that people who were leaders in one circumstance might fail to be leaders in another- witness the modern attempt to describe some PMs and Presidents as good at war, bad at peace, for example. Apparently identifying virtues is now fashionable again in leadership theory, which is nice.

I wish all the Neo-Caesars seeking the Big Chair could just can the reflective mind maps, and stop fretting about whether they’re autocratic, democratic, authoritarian, narcissistic or laissez faire, or whether or not they meet the emotional appetites of the people that work for them, and just bloody get on with it. Just bloody lead. Dare to be wrong, and make some sodding decisions. Life isn’t a committee. You may make an arse of yourself. That’s why you’re paid the big bucks. Oh, and grow a pair.

Celebrity Free School

Jamie Oliver’s at it again.
Not happy with his earlier campaign to harpoon the kamikaze attitude that some of our kids (and let’s face the truth, their well-meaning/ unpleasant and red-faced parents) have towards brightly coloured yoghurts and breakfast cereals with the word ‘Coco’ in them, he’s going for the White Whale this time: inspirational teachers. While you could quibble with the authenticity of anything made for television, I can’t help but wish him luck as he assembles an all star cast to try to re-engage disaffected kids back into education by using field leaders (and inexplicably Cherie Blair. I’m unaware that they had made a GCSE out of ‘Being Ghastly’ yet) to seduce the NEETs back into the classroom. Of course, it’s possible to suggest some slightly dodgy assumptions behind this all- that teaching is something anyone can do, and all they need is expertise in a field, which in my experience is far, far from the truth- teaching is a skill and a character set separate from the discipline you teach, and it’s why new teachers have a hard time for a few years before the kids have a war council and say, yeah, she’s had enough, allow it.

But you have to admire his guts, and I wish him all the best. Frankly if Daley Thompson had been my PE teacher I might have done a bit more jogging, but that’s mainly because I assume he wouldn’t have amused himself by calling me a poof and jeering at me as I missed passes like most of my teachers did.


Floella Benjamin is making  a stand!
The former Playschool presenter turned politician (typical- Italy gets Cicciolina, we get Floella Benjamin) is standing in the wilderness wearing sackcloth and ashes, living on a diet of wild honey and crickets, and warning us of the dangers of…childrens’ television. Apparently some parents use it as a child minder. How about that? Strange: I seem to recall a childhood sitting in front of the test card, waiting for the girl to make her move at tic-tac-toe before I sat down to an unguided, parent-free hour of…Playschool. It must have been an invented memory.

It is unlikely your teacher will look like this.

Saw The Children’s Hour at the Comedy Theatre last week, Lillian Hellman’s powerful drama about two teachers destroyed by the false accusations of one of their students. Although the star wattage sometimes threatens to overcast everything else (Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss act the stage off, although it was nothing compared to the dumbstruck sensation I felt when I realised I was in standing right behind Christina Hendricks, who turned round and met my eyes with what I’m sure was a moment when she thought to herself, ‘Don Draper? Here?‘), it’s a fine story that feels like The Crucible set in a boarding school, or the McCarthy Trials, as insinuation and allegation become just as damaging as the truth could ever have been.

It reminded me that at present teachers aren’t guaranteed anonymity when allegations are made against them, although the new Education Bill promises to remedy that comic state of affairs. But many teachers still suffer with suspension ‘while matters are being investigated’, something which by itself can be seen as mortally shaming, and indicative of guilt in the eyes of others. It also reminds me that in many cases, one teacher’s word is simply not enough to substantiate a claim. A colleague of mine used to work in another school, where one of the pupils told him to ‘Go f*** himself sideways,’ or some similar Wildean barb. The teacher took it to the Head who told him, ‘Ah, it’s one word against another. Nothing we can do.’

Grow. A. Pair.

This is why I read books.
Ball: legend of mathematics.

Finally, I see that Johnny Ball’s getting aggro from climate change enthusiasts over his views about the scientific reliability of same. Now without wishing to wade into the rights and wrongs, I’d just like to confirm that Johnny Ball was, at the same time as I was singing about bus wheels along with Floella Benjamin, like unto Jehoshaphat in mine childish eyes, and frankly he could go postal in the Lakeside Thurrock shopping mall and I’d be tempted to fund his legal defence. Johnny, I salute you, and your controversial views, because the more people get engaged with scientific analysis, the more immunised we all become to bullshit and cant. You, Tony Hart and Tom Baker did more to teach me how to love learning  (Think of a Number/ Take Hart/ The Book Tower) than a host of drippy educationalists, some of whom mocked my lack of affinity with matters athletic, as I indicated before). May your elbows be empowered.


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