Sir Michael Wilshaw

In my last blog, I spoke of the importance of leadership in school improvement and the numerous difficulties that many head teachers and senior leaders are experiencing at the moment.

The post-pandemic educational world has been fraught with problems particularly around the issue of student and staff attendance but also around the growing attainment gap between students from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers. Too many poor children are being left behind.

Nevertheless, many head teachers that I meet are tackling these issues head-on and doing their very best to meet the needs of their students. School leaders understand all too well that children and young people have just one chance of a decent education. There are very few second chances and the after-shocks of the Pandemic should not unfairly blight the chances of a whole generation of young people.

This is why school leadership is so critical and also why it is such a joy. To play such an important role in society is indeed a joyous thing. So, let this blog be about the joys of school leadership and my own happy experiences of headship.

There is rarely a month goes by without a student that I once taught or who had been in a school that I once led, recognising me in the street and stopping for conversation.

This happened just two days ago as I was taking my daily ‘constitutional ‘around Greenwich Park. A middle-aged man in full training kit, jogging around the park, stopped me in my tracks and shouted “Mr Wilshaw– It is Mr Wilshaw isn’t it! It’s great to see you! You remember me surely. I’m John who was in Year10 when you taught me History. I always thought it was great to have the head teacher also teaching a class!!”

Thankfully, I did remember John and we quickly got into conversation about what he was doing now and also about his time at school.

He remembered some of my full-school assemblies and recalled one where I was extolling the virtues of democracy. “I’ll never forget some of the things you said, particularly about the importance of voting. So, I always vote now!”

That was good to hear even though I didn’t manage to elicit from him which way he voted!

He went on- “I also remember what you said about fascism and dictatorship–that they arrive not in jackboots but in carpet slippers, slithering their way into society without anyone really noticing until it’s too late!”

John and I carried on talking for another half –hour, reminiscing and indulging in warm nostalgic memories.

The conversation with John was a delight like many of the other conversations I’ve had with ex-students over the years. They always serve to remind me of the importance of what we do as school leaders and the impact that we have on young people’s lives. Through the sometimes little, unremembered things that we do, society changes for the better.

It’s a cliché to say that no one forgets a good teacher but it is certainly true. It’s’ even more true to say that no one forgets a good head teacher and the good school he or she leads or has led.

School leaders should always remember that along with the occasional brick-bats that are thrown at the job come an equal number of bouquets! Let me go through some of the latter that I remember with such fondness.

I remember the simple joy of doing well by students, particularly from poor backgrounds; the joy of seeing their faces light up when opening up their examination results and getting the good news after years of hard work.

I remember the unmistakable sounds and smells of school life–the hubbub in the corridors, laughter in the playground, the buzz of children absorbed in their studies; staff and students interacting every second of the day. Most of all, I remember the occasional student hanging back at the end of the class to say “thank you for that sir– I really enjoyed that lesson”

Nothing beats that. Few other jobs, if any, can provide that level of satisfaction.

Although there were some difficult times in my 30 years of headship I never lost sight of the responsibilities but also huge rewards of headship. I treasure those memories but also hope that the experience I gained as a school leader can now benefit aspiring heads and those in the first few years of school leadership.

To this end, I’m really looking forward to working with Academicis and the team of experienced head teachers that we have recently recruited to support colleagues who may want a bit of advice and some mentoring particularly when problems arise.

A hugely successful, retiring head teacher once said to me that the only thing he regretted was not having enough time to do more. At the time, I found that a very strange thing to say simply because this outstanding leader had been so successful and had done so much.

In retrospect, however, I understand exactly what he meant. As I look back at my own time as a school leader, I just wish that I had been given more time to do even more in what is a fantastic job. So, to all my friends and colleagues in school leadership, can I say thank you for all you do and, in all sincerity, I envy you!!!

Sir Michael Wilshaw