Diary of a headteacher: Love over fear

Written by: Diary of a headteacher | Published:
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Creating a culture of fear will only get you so far before it unravels. Our headteacher diarist rejects this approach to leadership, opting always for a culture of love

One of the great books on education and leadership that I have read since becoming a headteacher has been This Much I Know About Love Over Fear by John Tomsett.

It is half autobiography, half leadership philosophy, with a hefty chunk of life advice thrown in for good measure.

I think I read it in one sitting on a long train journey in the summer before I took up my first headship. John speaks from the heart in his book (and in all of his excellent blog entries). His words never fail to resonate deeply with me.

I have always known, instinctively, that it is tremendously important to be true to yourself as a headteacher and to base all of your decisions and behaviours on your core principles.

The principle of leading a school within a culture of love over one of fear is something I am incredibly passionate about and I make no excuses for adopting Mr Tomsett’s phrase wholeheartedly in the way I lead my staff and students.

In my opening presentation to staff I took a great deal of time to make it very clear that this is the way I was going to lead and I regularly go back to this philosophy when the going gets tough.

Love over fear is summarised for me in the words of a young man I taught in my first school, almost 15 years ago.

I was being assessed for Advanced Skills Teacher status and going through what can only be described as an Ofsted inspection focused entirely on me, my character and my teaching. This lad Josh, who was in year 10 at the time, had been selected by the assessor to take part in an interview and he was asked about what it was like to be a student in my class.

The assessor recounted Josh’s response to me during the feedback session at the end of the day, he said: “Josh loves being taught by you, he says he has several teachers who he works really hard for but you are his favourite. He said he works hard for Mr X and Ms Y because he is scared of them, but he works hardest for you because he thinks you genuinely care about him.”

That testimony from Josh has always stayed with me and it has influenced the way in which I have led people since becoming a headteacher.

Will people work hard for me because they are scared of me? Will they only teach great lessons because they fear I will take them through capability if they don’t?

I have learned that a culture of fear will only get you so far, before your staff and students either burn-out or start to resent you so much they down tools or find their own ways of subverting what you are trying to achieve.

In a culture of fear there is little chance of seeing the discretionary effort that is so important to achieving success in schools.

Instead, if schools are led within a culture of love then the staff will do magical things with the young people and they will do it without being asked. But how is this achieved? As the head you need to love your staff, love your students, love your school and love your profession.

So, considering how passionately I feel about this, I read the recent comments by Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman with a combination of intrigue and disgust.

She claimed that a number of heads who blog online are creating a culture of fear in schools by increasing tensions and anxieties around the school accountability system (see http://bit.ly/2hZOm7A).

I find it hard to swallow such comments given the inconsistency that has plagued our inspection framework and which has put pay to the career of many school leaders – and which has put so many good leaders off becoming headteachers.

There may well be a culture of fear in many of our schools, but I feel the responsibility for this lies at the door of Ofsted, not the school leaders who work so hard to provide their students with a great education.

  • SecEd’s headteacher diarist is in his fourth year of headship at a secondary school in the Midlands.

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