Happy students = success


Inspired by a recent book on overcoming challenges as a headteacher, Karen Sullivan is heartened by the confirmation that student happiness is the top priority for so many leaders – ensure happy students and exam success will follow...

I was recently sent a book called Heads Up: The challenges facing England’s leading head teachers by Dominic Carmen. Everyone likes a little bit of insight into how other people/schools do things, and for this reason I like this book very much.

One of the things that I immediately noticed were chapters on Leadership and Happy Children, and I was gratified to see that these two were intrinsically linked in the eyes of most heads. Indeed, most heads considered themselves to be successful when their students were happy and engaged – not when they hit the highest echelons of Those Cursed League Tables (another chapter).

For example, SecEd columnist Marion Gibbs at James Allen’s Girls’ School explains: “I don’t micro-manage, but I am seen around the school: accessibility is important ... being encouraging, never writing a child off, but always being prepared to look for someone’s potential, and being prepared to be surprised, and give a second chance.”

Chris Ray at Manchester Grammar believes in “the head who knows the name of every pupil in the school, who is always about”. He feels that “you can create the illusion of being everywhere and knowing everybody, if you really care about such things”. 

At Royal Grammar Guildford, Jon Cox believes that being “approachable” is one of the most more important things about leading. He says: “A school’s ethos directly follows from the ethos, personality and actions of the head. I talk, I laugh a lot, which in this business is important, I share jokes, and I’m hopefully, empathetic, supportive and visible.”

Building a community where students are busy, supportive and given the benefit of the doubt not only came across as the key to happy children, but also happy staff and heads. Joe Spence at Dulwich College calls his own leadership “redemptive”, and says, “I’m always likely to be someone who wants to give another chance”.

It is recognising and valuing every member of the school community, no matter where their talents lie, that appeals to Edward Elliott at The Perse School in Cambridge. He believes “you need a school where the children are at the centre of everything that you do, the children are respected, they’re listened to”.

For me, the approach of Jane Gandee at St Swithun’s School in Winchester was the most appealing. She believes in giving children freedom to take the initiative, and says her “default setting” is “yes”. She suggests that giving freedom encourages children to make healthy decisions and, more importantly, mistakes, something she firmly believes is necessary to long-term success and happiness.

On the school website, she writes: “They will not do everything perfectly straight away and they will make mistakes, but that is often when the best learning takes place. In the words of Samuel Beckett, ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’.”

The thing that struck me most about this book was the positivity – the heads’ overwhelming belief in students, good and bad, and their deep-felt concern about their wellbeing and emotional health, not just their grades. In every chapter, this seeps through the anecdotes they tell; the concerns, tips and guidance they share; the mistakes they themselves have made. It’s an honest, interesting and informative collection of opinions and ideas that provides a wealth of insights, whether you are an aspiring head, a newcomer or at the top of your game. 

It’s clear that anyone who becomes a head will have the best interests of his or her pupils at hearts; but to see it spelled out like this has certainly restored my faith in education at grassroots level – and beyond. 

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com


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