Headstrong: 11 lessons of school leadership

During the splurge of initial interest in this book, I snarkily tweeted that Dame Sally was getting good publicity for an account of “how I did what I was paid for”. Was I too harsh?

Dame Sally has enjoyed a successful career, leading two outstanding inner city schools and transforming lives along the way. In a time when we have come to view the term “superhead” with suspicion, she has sailed on, untouched by the curse of being one of the headteachers most commonly cited in the speeches of formed education secretary Michael Gove.

Her book is a good read. Her 11 lessons clearly explain her approach; checklists and summary boxes break up the chapters. Each chapter ends on a tweet: a 140-character summary of its key message. Handy, even if it did initially make me wonder if Dame Sally could simply have produced 11 tweets and saved us the other 270 pages.

But within the familiar story of school transformation – behaviour, uniform, high expectations – there are some interesting, sometimes surprising, riffs.

She worries, for example, that we are developing a new divide between schools for middle-class pupils where they enjoy a creative education in loosely structured institutions, and schools for children in more deprived areas that are felt to require a more regimented approach.

In a passage to warm Fiona Millar’s heart, her solution is externally administered admissions to ensure more diversity within schools. She wants to stop good schools skewing their intakes through fair banding and faith-based selection.

To its credit, Burlington Danes in west London, where Dame Sally made her name, does not use faith-based admissions to “handpick affluent students”. It doesn’t even use fair banding. It simply takes those in closest proximity. At this point, deep into chapter 10, I finally began to warm to Dame Sally.

Praised by Gove she may have been, but she hasn’t always supported him. Most notably, she spoke out during the 2012 English GCSE grading “fiasco”. She is also forceful on the need for central direction on assessment, describing it as a dereliction of duty to leave the replacement of levels, which she supports, to schools to work out individually.

Much has been made of the infamous Burlington Danes’ ranking. Each term, students are ranked from 1 to 180 and the rankings are publicly displayed. While I support regular testing and the sharing of results with students and parents, I shudder at the idea of public ranking. It is an idea so toxic that even Gove was forced to back down when he suggested it for A-levels.

Someone will always be bottom: “On the day they are posted, pupils are very excited: some elated, others CRUSHED WITH DISAPPOINTMENT.” Imagine that for the most vulnerable – term after term, year after year, in public. I would have spent every publication day in tears.

There are contradictions that made me growl. All her experience has been within urban schools. Heads of schools in more affluent areas will take exception to her view that they have an easy life and could make do with half the money that her school needed.

In her conclusion, she recognises that aspirations can be low outside London. It is infuriating that the rest of her analysis does not take account of this – nor the additional struggle with teacher recruitment and the other challenges peculiar to rural and coastal schools.

On the surface, this is a manual for school transformation. It does not advise anything that good schools won’t already be doing – or tried and rejected – but its back to basics approach could be the straightforward guidance that makes the difference to a struggling school.

And yet Dame Sally states that “truly outstanding schools cannot be generated according to a formula” and “a school is only as good as its headteacher”.

My suspicion is that the spark of leadership genius lies within Dame Sally herself. And we can’t clone her despite, on the back cover, Toby Young’s fulsomely expressed desire to do so.

@SchoolDuggery