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Read for Pleasure, Write to Think

‘The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory’ may or may not be a Chinese proverb – people online seem to have remarkably powerful views about things that seem of limited importance to me – but it is a useful way to summarise one of my key approaches to educational leadership.  It is often a helpful phrase as well when I am trying to impart wisdom to a class of pupils.  While most will usually have a pen or a laptop to hand, and I am still naïve enough to think their writing and tapping may actually be related to what I am telling them, there are always one or two who just sit there.  When I ask why they are not writing, they often claim that they can simply remember the important bits.  Cue the Chinese proverb. 

Rather longer ago than I would care to remember, I attended an induction course for new head teachers.  I am sure I could write several articles reflecting on what I learned or failed to learn that weekend in preparation for headship, which was anyway always a role that I viewed as being like driving a car.  It was never going to matter how many case studies or ‘what if’ scenarios we looked at, the best way to learn how to lead a school is to do it.  You can know the Highway Code inside out and backwards, but it won’t help you to do a reverse hill start in the rain.

At the time of the course, I was a deputy head who had particular responsibility for the day-to-day organisation of the school, as well as the endless complexities and nuances of pastoral care, so the parts I struggled with most were the sessions about the development of a coherent vision.  I was then, and I think I still am today, often more comfortable with operational systems than blue-sky thinking; though, rather like management and leadership, in the end it is clear that both are fundamental in the creation of a really good school.

The highlights were the pieces of advice from practising heads, above all Tony Little from Eton College.  He was unpretentious and full of interesting ideas, for example the recommendation only to put ten things on a ‘to do’ list, because if everything is a priority then nothing will be.  My favourite was his four ways to deal with stress – gamble, lie, cheat and steal.  When we had recovered from the initial shock, he clarified that his recommendations were to gamble on yourself, lie in the shade, cheat the negative thinkers and steal good ideas. 

The idea that I found most helpful was the suggestion that it is important to write to clarify your thinking.  To that point in my career, I had read lots of books and articles to develop my subject knowledge and improve my classroom teaching, with most of my writing coming in the form of notes for pupils, schemes of work or grumpy missives to those above me in the hierarchy about why they should run the school in the way I was suggesting.  When greater responsibility came with deputy headship, much time and effort was devoted to the creation of policies and procedures, and with the day-to-day challenges of running the school, which left very little mental bandwidth for anything else. I did not therefore start compiling my scrapbooks of other people’s wisdom until I became a head.  I may have been a late starter, but I have been reading, taking notes and, above all, stealing good ideas ever since, and I would wholeheartedly recommend it.

I was privileged to hear the television and radio producer John Lloyd, the man behind QI, at a conference a couple of years ago.  I have always found that a QI Book of Facts provides at least a year’s worth of assemblies if it is used properly.  It was a genuinely fascinating hour as he ranged eclectically across a host of topics, from such gems as reminding people to be there for their staff but otherwise just to make sure they have enough to eat, to the fact that sheep can apparently distinguish between Fiona Bruce and Emma Watson.  However, the moment that stayed with me was when he echoed what I had taken years to work out, with the advice that you should read everything but only write down what you find interesting. 

I was asked recently for a list of my ‘top ten’ non-fiction books, which I initially thought might prove a daunting task to compile, but which actually turned out to be very straightforward because I just looked up at the bookshelf in my office and picked my favourites.  There is not time here to explain the justification of each choice, but in case anyone is interested: Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens; Yuval Noah Harari – Homo Deus; Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow; David McRaney – You Are Not So Smart; Jim Collins – Good to Great; Linda Gratton & Andrew Scott – The 100-Year Life; Hans Rosling – Factfulness; Matthew Walker – Why We Sleep; Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything; Bill Lucas & Guy Claxton – Educating Ruby.  If you do not have a ‘top ten’ of your own, I strongly recommend compiling one.

There are no silver bullets in education, no simple ways to guarantee that children make better progress.  However, time and again the message comes through that those who develop the ability to read for pleasure give themselves a significant advantage.  I like to think I have become a much more effective leader by reading as widely and eclectically as I can, clarifying my thoughts and expressing them through writing.  My idea of reading for pleasure is to sit in a deckchair in a shady spot with a good book and a pen to make notes of the best bits.  This is one of the key ways in which I sustain myself through some of the many challenges of school leadership – of which there have been plenty in recent months, and there certainly look to be plenty more ahead!

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