Review by Sonia Thompson

Headteacher, St Matthew's CofE Primary School

30 Jul 2023, 5:00

Book

Lessons from the head’s office

By Brian Walton

Publisher

Corwin UK

ISBN 10

1529767717

Published

23 Jun 2023

I love a good edu-book. I particularly love a good, evidence-informed edu-book that presents its reader with theory and further reading. However, I must admit that sometimes the rabbit-hole of theory and further reading can overwhelm me. Should I know this? Should I read it now or later? Phew! 

So it was really refreshing to read Lessons From The Heads Office and not being prompted to read more. Instead, this book is nothing more and nothing less than a leader sharing his thoughts, stories and advice based on his own experiences – and that’s more than enough to be getting on with.

Walton does not hold back as he takes us, experience by experience, through leadership’s highs and lows. The book presents, as he puts it himself, an ’honest and sometimes brutal look at the challenges’.  It’s school leadership in the raw and the real, portrayed through the reflections of a bold writer who has seen it all, got the tee shirt and is still in the game.

That boldness is thrust on you from the outset. Chapter one’s title is Leadersh*t, which Walton defines, exemplifies and strongly advises against. And that boldness continues throughout as Walton confronts the many controversies and counterpoints of school leadership life. It’s not subtle. In fact, it is a little in your face. But in many ways this is the book’s USP, and it is precisely its unwavering honesty and humanity that I appreciated most.

For me, chapter four On inclusion, perfectly exemplifies this honesty and humanity. Although it does offer some answers, it also leaves you with many questions to ponder and challenges to face. What is clear is how robustly Walton positions inclusion, diversity and equity at the heart of any effective school – just as it should be – and how challenging that is.

Walton does not hold back

But while Walton accepts the complexities and difficulties that are a necessary part of leadership, there are a number of aspects of the role that this ‘head of 19 years and counting’ is certain about. He is certain about the moral purpose of what we do and the lasting legacy it can have. He is certain about our use of time and the vortex of emails we’ve come to accept. And he is in no doubt that kindness is not weakness and that trust is the cornerstone of building a team. Finally, he is quote, quite certain that Ofsted is far too erratic and unpredictable.

The way the book is organised is itself somewhat erratic. There is a clear contents page, but each chapter rambles rather freely. There are principles, references and conclusions and a sense of seriousness in some chapters, and none of these in another. The chapters are clearly titled, yet some of the sub-headings are not. Some are funny, and some are downright bizarre. They make sense when you read on, but you won’t find your way back to them without the index. (Thankfully, there is one!)

But maybe that is the point. It is its own book and that’s okay. This book espouses individuality and a ‘rebel, rebel’ attitude, yet it oozes much traditional thinking. This dichotomy means that there is much that I have read before from other well-known writers, such as teaching and learning being foundational and using evidence and research to inform decision making wherever possible. In many ways, this positioning is what makes Walton’s book so interesting; at the end of the day, this is where many teachers are… somewhere in the middle.

Ultimately, this book is about how to thrive rather than merely survive in a profession where recruitment and retention are clear and present dangers seemingly with no immediate resolution. Walton calls it ‘longevity’ and in the final chapter, tasks the readers with carving out there own way to lead effectively.

I will always love a good evidence-informed edu-book, but if you want a reflection on current school leadership (careful spelling here), then you would do well to learn your lessons from this no-nonsense head’s office. I may not agree with everything, but the courage of its conviction is compelling, convincing, and that makes it a must-read.

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