Book Review: “A Practical Guide to creating a Culture of Excellence.”

Jonathan Taylor, our guest book reviewer finds leadership ‘addressed in a common sense but insightful manner’ in a read he recommends.

Book Review: Leadership Matters: How leaders at all levels can create great schools.

By Andy Buck (2016)

It notes in the foreword that it is ‘a book for leaders at any level, whether you are a middle leader, senior leader, head teacher or system leader responsible for more than one school’, expanding that ‘the only difference of leadership is scale’. And, whilst some sections are stronger than others, the book is true to its aim in being a useful tool for a broad range of educational leaders.

I will show my hand at the outset and acknowledge that I really enjoyed reading this book. It resonated with many of my own views on education, specifically that it is people rather than systems which determine the extent of a school’s achievement. The book is excellent in concisely summarizing concepts and beliefs which I have often found difficult to articulate. It draws heavily on existing theories but deploys them with a light and deft touch, and subsequently provides a comprehensive and practical guide to creating a culture of excellence within a school.

Leadership Matters is littered with reminders of things which are of fundamental importance but so often get overlooked in the hustle bustle of day to day school life

The author talks with a wisdom borne from great experience and evident self-reflection. Topics covered are diverse -the role and management of meetings, demonstrating respect, governance, managing up – and are addressed in a common sense but insightful manner. Leadership Matters is littered with reminders of things which are of fundamental importance but so often get overlooked in the hustle bustle of day to day school life – ‘There is no substitute for talking to people’, ‘honouring commitments is one of the most effective ways you can build confidence and trust’, and, a particular favourite, ‘the message that colleagues matter as people and not just as employees doesn’t just go out to the individual concerned; it permeates the whole institution’. The importance of discretionary effort – the willingness of staff to go the extra mile and the culture necessary to achieve that – is a common thread throughout the book and the primary reason I would recommend it is a worthwhile read for school leaders.

A minor criticism of the book is the over frequent use of diagrams, a personal bugbear of mine. In this sense the author is merely following the trend of distilling complex phenomenon into a neat diagram 8 consisting of a few boxes and arrows supplemented with ten words of text. If simplistic pictorial images are your basis for evaluating complex leadership issues then, well, you can draw your own conclusion. There are also references to ideas which are still currently en vogue but which I suspect will be looked back on in the same way as learning styles are currently. In my humble opinion the fetish for sub group analysis has led to millions of wasted hours and resulted in false and counter-productive solutions. At some stage it will surely be exposed for the smoke screen it really is. Likewise, whilst there is a sensible underpinning to the premise of assessing the effectiveness of intervention strategies, the whole concept has become dangerously oversimplified – and I don’t think the book does enough to caution against simplistic treatment of the work. There is much to be admired in Hattie’s work but if you are treating the statement ‘intervention x’ has an effectiveness of ‘0.whatever’ as some kind of statistical fact then I suggest you don’t pick up the phone to PPI salesmen.

Leadership Matters places the importance of staff back at the heart of school leadership debate and for that teachers everywhere should be thankful.

The above are essentially churlish gripes and should not detract from what is a very impressive book, one which can be read from start to finish or simply dipped in and out of. Leadership Matters places the importance of staff back at the heart of school leadership debate and for that teachers everywhere should be thankful. Amongst many pearls of wisdom in the book I will choose to finish on one which will be stressed to my staff on the first day of term. The job of maintaining the right climate for learning is never finished.

Jonathan Taylor, Head teacher, Northbridge House School Canonbury

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