Review by Martin Matthews

National leader of governance

14 Oct 2018, 5:00


Lessons Learned? A life in education

By Brian Lightman


John Catt Educational Ltd

It’s with trepidation that I agreed to review Brian Lightman’s book Lessons Learned?, so conscious was I that this book is the distilled experience of a lifetime.

Lightman’s early life has shades of Michael Rosen’s: lives interrupted by the war and an emphasis on professional skills, the portable asset. With such a background, Lightman could have joined a variety of professions. Whether by chance or design, however, he appears to have found his vocation, judging by his frank assessment of the prevailing attitude in the late 1970s: “Teaching was seen as a second-rate career by so many people who had not understood the magic.”

Many of the book’s sections contain clear and useful advice. The underlying principles are those that we see repackaged by successive generations of education consultants. “Consult fully with your team” is always worthwhile.

Lightman does a good job of acknowledging the link between senior leaders and teaching, stating that senior leadership is not “an escape from the classroom” – an attitude sure to maintain credibility with staff.

The “Lessons learned for aspiring school leaders” section lays out the core of how to apply for senior leadership. If you are looking for promotion it’s worth reading the book for this chapter alone. Also sound is Lightman’s suggestion to withdraw from the selection process if you feel unsuited to the job – neither the person nor the school wants a square peg in a round hole. As Lightman explains: “School leadership is all about walking and talking the ethos.”

The section on how to establish yourself as a new leader is well explained. Perhaps the most contentious assertion, that “School leadership is not about sitting in an office”, is the truest. Leadership is about being a visible leader, accessible to all.

Some issues in education still bear the glow of being too hot to handle, but Lightman pulls no punches on how we have got to where we are today – he states with authority that “some policymakers have been utterly disingenuous in their misuse of research”. This is crucial to the development of education, and we must not see the same fads and issues come full circle.

The policymaker chapters are almost a 101 for policy wonks or SPADs, and the thorny issue of autonomy under local management of schools and academisation is explored well. Lightman articulates well the rarely heard but important voice of senior leaders who state they have more individual school autonomy as maintained schools than as academies. Lightman can’t be clearer when he dismisses as “complete myth” the idea that local authorities used to “control” schools.

The section on how to establish yourself as a new leader is well explained

The lessons learned about heads and governance is a good starting point for any new head. However I would take issue with Lightman’s view that governors should be able to set their own meeting schedule. Headteachers have much better things to do with their time than manage governors’ timetables.

Knowing and managing relations with the community is of tremendous importance and Lightman offers an effective blueprint for any senior leadership team. It takes a long time to develop a good reputation and little time for it to be destroyed.

Lightman’s years leading the Association of School and College Leaders makes for a good read. Suffice to say this chapter could lay a great foundation for an education version of “The Thick of It”.

Fitting all this into one book is a squeeze, however, and it could easily have been split into two: one excellent practical book on career progression, and another offering an insider view of national policy.

Nevertheless, Lessons Learned? is rare in that it combines the collective memory of education at national level with real, effective advice for people at different stages of their career. This makes it useful to many audiences. I’d recommend it particularly for middle and senior leaders.

On the other hand, if you are a policy wonk, please don’t read it and get any more ideas about how to change the system!

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