John Catt Educational
8 Nov 2021
Even if you are not currently in leadership, I’d advise you not to skip this review. Back in 1999, in my induction chat with my new headteacher, I was asked if I had “ambitions for the swivelly chair”. I had no idea what she was referring to; I wanted to teach drama and English and the thought of being a head could not have been further from my mind.
Yet just a year later, I was offering a ten-year development plan to SLT to create a performing arts faculty, and my passion for school improvement only grew from there. So my message is: this could be important reading for you, even if it’s not on your radar right now.
Having recently entered my second year of headship after completing my National Professional Qualification for Headship over the past 12 months, I was keen to gain valuable insight into how to be more effective in managing my work/life balance. The NPQH ensures you read and consider leadership theory, but putting theory into practice is where the work is, and there is no ‘Haynes Manual’ for headship (although manuals are discussed in chapter eleven). Professor Toby Salt’s book has praise from the great and the good already, but it’s people like me, at the start of their leadership journey as new heads, who will benefit from having The Juggling Act to hand.
The book is set out in chronological order, leading readers through from the moment they are appointed to the time they plan their departure. Keeping work/life balance centre-stage at all times, each chapter offers salient advice on a number of vital leadership areas: sharing the mission, balancing autonomy and control, running effective meetings, delegating effectively, money management and human resources.
The Juggling Act is a rare book these days, in that it is not laden with research. Instead, it’s based on Salt’s own experiences, good and bad. There are some laugh-out-loud moments (one involving a pink limo with a pole, inappropriately ordered for a politician) as well as some painfully honest moments where a skewed work/life balance has had unhealthy consequences.
But while there are few references to theory or further reading, it’s no less helpful for it. For example, I will return time and again to the reflective questions at the end of each chapter. This book is akin to a series of coaching sessions, spiced up with anecdotes from a lifetime of service to young people in education. These anecdotes have highlighted for me many areas I should focus on in more detail, from thresholds of decision making to the value of being more prescriptive in meetings; and from how am I leading by example on work/life balance to creating ‘manuals’ for roles that may not have a contingency for long-term absence.
My key criticism is that, for a book written at the time of the pandemic, it contains too little about dealing with crises. Leadership in the time of Covid is tougher than at any time in recent history. Decisions that impact on the health and wellbeing of the whole school community have become the bread and butter of heads’ duties. So while the final chapter, ‘Births, deaths and ambulances’, touches on times when staff members are in crisis, or when a whole school community is suffering a tragic loss, it feels insufficient in relation to the daily onslaught of the role as it has been for nearly two years.
Having said that, Toby won me over from the first chapter. You’ll excuse me that casual address, but I feel like we are on first-name terms after holding deep and meaningful chats with him in my kitchen for the past fortnight. He is my kind of leader. So as I ask myself whether my decisions ‘will make a difference to Darren’, I know The Juggling Act will be a crucial navigation aid as I try not to crash the ambulance.