I have started to write this article on Mashujaa Day — a Kenyan public holiday where extraordinary individuals and their contributions to the struggle for independence are celebrated. These can be famous leaders, critical to historical junctures, or more humble folk who have achieved some everyday good. Leadership in education comes in all shapes and sizes. Today in schools movement towards contemporary concepts of ‘collaborative’ and ‘distributed’ leadership qualifies it. Looking back over 40 years in education, my view remains unchanged. It is great individual leadership in schools that matters most. Complex structures are necessary for the management of today’s great enterprises including schools if corporate performance and motivation are to be optimised. However, the moral, educational and commercial buck stops firmly on the head’s desk, where it has always Been!
Many of us have been fortunate enough at some time in our careers to be inspired by great school leaders and teachers. While the opposite can also be true[ My greatest mentor was Alan Quilter, the transformatory headmaster of Wells Cathedral School, 1966-1984. Determined to play his role in WWII, Alan had run away from Dulwich College aged 16 to join the merchant navy. Torpedoed in the South China Sea, but having read prodigiously, (not by accident Joseph Conrad was his favourite author) he arrived in Cambridge without ‘matric’ but succeeded in persuading Peterhouse to admit him as an undergraduate. Imbued with a huge love of English literature, something he was later to pass on to his pupil Jeffrey Archer, Alan was a natural schoolmaster. He progressed through Uppingham, the ’50s clearing house of future headmasters, to leadership posts at Wellington School and then the headship of Wells Cathedral School at the tender age of 3% Hardly viable, incredibly parochial and housed in a mixture of crumbling church buildings and nissen huts, Alan gave this school a well-deserved national reputation for excellence during his long headship. Strategically brilliant, Alan’s two great decisions were firstly to make Wells one of the first boarding schools to embrace full co education, and secondly to establish all-round musical excellence alongside its cathedral choir. Wells Cathedral School became one of the four government-supported specialist music schools and is the only one where international excellence for music is set within the context of a normal school with a wide-ranging curriculum and extracurricular activities. However, Alan was much more than strategic imagination. His strength of personality was matched by what my mother would have called ‘the common touch’. He passionately believed in the young, both pupils and teachers new to teaching, and was intolerant of any unnecessary bounds to their ambitions and aspirations. Each individual was given his special attention when needed. It was my privilege to serve as Alan’s last deputy head.
Most heads of my generation have now retired and, in too many cases, have passed on. Stephen Winkley (Headmaster Uppingham and then Rossall) makes a brilliant representative of heroic leadership, both intellectually but also possessing that imagination and empathy necessary for great headship. All of us have those we have known who we would add to our list of heroes. It would be good to see that list completed including the titans of the prep schools. The latter led from the front as heads while also covering a multitude of roles. I shall never forget making a winter visit to a prep school in Yorkshire whose head ruled in papal splendour, until the lights fused and the schooI was plunged into darkness. He donned overalls, seized his toolbox and climbed into the attic, explaining that only he knew the secrets, let alone the location, of an ancient fuse box.
But back to today. Much of my life is now taken up in assisting boards to appoint heads. The bane of searches is undue importance attached to modern HR ‘best practice’ and also ‘political correctness’. Anthony Millard Consulting has no wish to be ‘incorrect’ but equally wants to be unconstrained in its search for excellence in school leadership. This is an art rather than a science. We are blind to the background of candidates and resistant to the languages of educational bureaucracy and corporate management speak. What we do look for is contemporary action centred leadership anchored to the unchanging values of great education. Of course the head is a supreme team leader, but that has always been true. Real leadership involves listening and patient consultation. However, at its heart is moral courage and the ability to make a decisive individual contribution within the incredibly complex arena of a great school. Alan Quilter and Stephen Winkley both were exemplars of this. They would have both got Mashujaa.