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Belonging part 4: Zero tolerance or compassion – which way is school leadership heading?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 20 July 2022

Kathryn Riley.                                    

If you want a few moments of unbridled joy, watch Flakefleet Primary School, Fleetwood perform their 2019 audition for ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. Next, dip into Michele Obama’s autobiography Becoming and find out about one of her favourite schools, Elizabeth Garret Anderson (EGA), and why it ‘touched her heart’ (p.320).  This exploration will give you some insights into the leadership of Flakefleet and EGA.

Pupils from Flakefleet Primary audition for Britain’s Got Talent, with headteacher Dave McPartlin in the background (screenshot)

Scanning the leadership terrain of late, I have been trying to make sense of what is going on. Two widely different models of school leadership seem to be emerging at opposite ends of the spectrum. One is relational and compassionate and focused on belonging; the other is about command and control, with ‘zero tolerance’ of misdemeanours. Each approach reflects a different view about what motivates people in an organisation. Broadly speaking these are that people want to contribute and be part of an enterprise versus that they are unwilling to deliver and need to be closely supervised.

In the Podcast Zero tolerance or a sense of us we brought together the headteachers of Flakefleet Primary and EGA (Dave McPartlin and Jo Dibb) to talk about their leadership. The conversation is electric.

Dave is proud of his ‘Dare to Dream School’ and its record. The school received the ‘Happiest School in the Country Award’ in 2018. Jo has recently stepped down as EGA’s executive head and is a National Leader of Education. She also features in Francis Beckett’s 2010 book, How to create a Successful School.

I start by asking Dave about Britain’s Got Talent. ‘We had a dreams list’, he tells me. ‘All of the 420 children had a dream. Seven-year-old Megan wanted to go on Britain’s Got Talent. So we did.’

… A lot of people thought that we’d lost the plot ………(but) the beautiful thing that happened along the way was that this sense of belonging and being part of something emerged… I honestly think that’s been a big part of what’s got us through COVID… we look after one another.

Jo tells me about Michelle Obama’s visit to the school:

 …  I’m not making it up, after she visited the school, she wrote about her sense of awe at the strength and the determination of the young women she met and in her wonderful autobiography ‘Belonging’, she wrote that the spirit of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson had actually touched her heart.

We discuss ‘zero tolerance’, an approach that angers them both.

Jo:  It makes me feel quite angry that people can be so dismissive of young people and not understand that they are in schools to help them to grow and to develop, and that each one of them is an individual.

Dave:  It makes my brain explode.  I just think that you’re losing so much more than you’re ever gaining… What schools have been brilliant at doing through the pandemic is being guided by their values and the things that are actually important.

I later meet with Dame Mary Marsh, an ex-headteacher herself, and one time head of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She tells me about work that the NSPCC carried out with young people who had been abused, about how these youngsters struggled to hide their abuse from outsiders. As they left home, they told the NSPCC team that they put on their ‘invisibility’ mask. Not wanting to share their abuse with others, they kept this on throughout the school day, only taking it off when they returned home.

Schools need to work to understand some of these challenges, she argues. They also need to think about school belonging more broadly and how to create the kinds of safe spaces which provide the physical and emotional security which will encourage young people to take off their masks.

Having interviewed Dave McPartlin, Jo Dibb and Dame Mary Marsh what strikes me is how genuine they are. They tell their stories from the heart: what they have seen, what they have learned about young people and their lives.

I’m also taken with how compassionate they are. Compassion is the super-glue that brings leaders, staff, families and communities together, as I’ve argued in my new book Compassionate Leadership for School Belonging.

My final thought is how interesting they all are – and fun to be with!  I suspect everyone who works with them feels the same.

Compassionate Leadership for School Belonging, by Kathryn Riley, published by UCL Press (4 April 2022).  The open access edition can be downloaded for free here.



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