Brave Heads

How to Lead a School without Selling your Soul

By: Dave Harris


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Size: 182 x 222mm
Pages : 208
ISBN : 9781781350485
Format: Paperback
Published: January 2013

All too often now schools are under immense pressure to demonstrate outstanding practice that can be documented on paper, which can often lead to schools that are genuinely improving their teaching standards long term and investing in pupils to fall short of the government's criteria for success.

As the principal of a brand new high profile academy, Dave Harris knows first-hand the frustrations of providing genuine education for children while maintaining high standards according to the guidelines set out by authorities. Dave has stuck by his principles – stating that it is a marathon, not a sprint – and while acknowledging the necessity for great results, has maintained a focus of providing young people with the education they deserve. The key to this, he believes, is bravery!

Picture for author Dave Harris

Dave Harris

Dave Harris has worked for over 20 years in school leadership, including 12 years as a school principal across both primary and secondary phases. During this time, he has developed a reputation for innovative thinking and practice, which he is now sharing with school leaders across the world. He is a sought-after speaker and writer and is also Business Director of Independent Thinking.

Read Dave's feature on page 26 of Leadership Focus Magazine - March 2013.


  1. A 'Brave Head' is what everyone wants their school leader to be. Encouraging Head Teachers and those with ambitions of leadership to take a good hard look at themselves and their school; Dave Harris asks that we be brave enough to identify what is good and keep it, and courageous enough to locate the weaknesses and strengthen or change them. Fortunately he is on hand with a range of strangely simple and infinitely practical advice and suggestions on how to go about this.

    In 64 salient points, the key responsibilities of a head teacher are articulated and thus the gauntlet is thrown -” will you lift it?
  2. For any new Head or for those considering Headship this is one to read as it is written by a Principal with thirty years plus of experience who has clear insight into the challenges faced by a Head in an ever changing educational environment. The useful tips at the end of every chapter serve to be practical and are summarised at the end of the book too. The content throughout focuses on what is really important in building a school community and allows the reader to examine their own situation.

    There is good use of analogies to explain a point in an interesting way, encouraging the reader to remember the point being made. Dave Harris explains how common sense should prevail when he sets up his five essential school rules, how bravery is -˜keeping your eyes on the marathon whilst you are performing the sprint' and not of course forgetting the -˜wonder' room.

    He cleverly describes examples where, if there is a problem to be addressed, this is done through positive means rather than highlighting the issue. In other words he would support or arrange anything that would serve to develop self- esteem and a new found enthusiasm for learning.

    In one chapter he outlines four types of leadership as fat controller, nurturer, gardener and corporate executive which all serve to illustrate that you can be any combination of these at any given time, but that you do not have to be a successful leader to fit a specific profile.

    He captures the reader's interest in every chapter which encourages you to want to read on.
  3. This is a superbly written account of a head teacher's experience of managing a school giving clear insight into how to generate change by positively engaging with and motivating others. The author's key theme is bravery, emphasising the need to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, in order to be the positive driver for change.

    In the current period of educational challenge for schools and local authorities in England and Wales this book is essential reading for teachers, managers and governors facing the challenge of directing change. Throughout the book the regular “steps to being brave” are realistic practical tips to target progress. Well done Dave Harris both for your achievements as a head but more particularly for sharing your skills for “being brave” with others.

  4. If you're not familiar with the brilliant -˜Yes Prime Minister', there's a running joke throughout the series. Whenever Jim Hacker, the hapless Prime Minister is told by Sir Humphrey Appleby that he's made a “courageous” decision, he panics and changes his mind. In his world, a courageous decision is definitely not a good thing - in fact it means his neck is almost certainly on the line-¦

    When our copy of -˜Brave Heads' arrived on the doormat, guess what the first thing that sprung to mind was?

    (fade to a Head's office in a where the chair of governors is peering over a sheaf of papers)
    CHAIR: (concerned) Just to make you aware, this is a very brave plan, Headteacher. HEADTEACHER: (gulps) Brave, you say?
    CHAIR:Very brave, Headteacher. Almost courageous.
    HEAD: Oh deary me-¦ We don't want that. Are you sure? (Long pause)
    CHAIR: (wearily) Yes, Headteacher.
    (Roll credits)

    Well, it amused us anyway.

    The second thought we had was that this was going to be a book entirely for school leaders. As such, we'd expect it to be riddled with management jargon and advice that meant little to non-leaders like ourselves. Nevertheless, we'd do our best to provide a helpful review for those who appreciate that sort of thing.

    We were wrong.

    Thankfully Dave Harris has nothing of Sir Humphrey about him! -˜Brave Heads' (subtitle: “How to lead a school without selling your soul”) is personal, witty and pithy, showing not just what it takes to be a brave leader, but - we'd suggest - what it takes to be a brave teacher. Dave Harris speaks from experience - as the ex-Head of a 3-”18 school (a fascinating story in itself) and Principal of the brand new Nottingham University Samworth Academy - and his book contains lessons learned, creative ideas and personal anecdotes to highlight his points. As Harris states, he wanted to write the book “that would have helped me at the lowest point of my change journey”. If you're under any illusion that those in leadership don't experience doubt, worry or wobbles in confidence, take a look. The author is a Headteacher with significant experience and he underlines the point that these feelings are pretty much normal for those in leadership roles. Its honesty is really refreshing from a book that (as we say) we thought was going to be jargon-heavy! Perhaps that says more about ourselves than anything else.

    In -˜Brave Heads', Dave Harris uses “Bravery is-¦” statements in small chapters to give you the confidence to be brave if you're not and the encouragement to keep going if you already are. Some favourites were:
    - Bravery is giving teachers the space to encourage genius (No.9) - Bravery is not changing things, at least some of the time (No.14) - Bravery is having jobs, rooms and people that no one else does (No.16) - Bravery is making mistakes and then letting others know you made them (No.59)
    There are 64 in all - this is just a sample.

    The beauty of -˜Brave Heads' is that it's not just for those in leadership. It wouldn't take much editing to title it -˜Brave Teaching' and re-brand the book for classroom teachers. Take the above list. Here's what we thought (as non-leaders) as we read it-¦
    - We've got to look for opportunities to encourage genius in our classroom. - Don't change things just for the sake of it. - Teach in ways that no one else does. - Don't worry about making mistakes - just make sure you admit them.
    Thankfully, -˜Brave Heads' isn't packed with management-speak only for those who are in positions of leadership. Clearly, its target audience is Headteachers, Deputy Headteachers and so on, but we were intrigued to note its usefulness to a wider demographic too. This is solid advice for any teacher. And in our own small way, aren't we all in positions of leadership?

    -˜Brave Heads' encourages school leaders to stick to the things that are right and to let go of the things that aren't necessary. See Dave Harris' brilliant comments on moving away from that endemic disease “We must impart for you to learn-it us” (isn't “a propensity to talk too much in lessons” a symptom we've all suffered from? No? Just us, then!). It also challenges us to step outside of our comfort zone and think differently. Not for the sake of being gimmicky, but with “the whole pupil” in mind at all times. At NUSA, Harris employed an -˜Agent of Wonder' (Matthew McFall) to run his own Wonder Room, encouraging natural curiosity and learning - not everything has to be taught with grades in mind (“Bravery is encouraging your staff to let go of the belief that their subject is the most important thing in a child's life” is No.11!)

    An admission:
    As you may have gathered, we're not massive fans of jargon. We've always been about getting pupils interested and being lively, creative and well-rounded in the classroom. That's what matters to us. In fact, we were pleased to see that No.39 was titled “Bravery is admitting when you don't know the meaning of a long word”!! However, special mention must be made of the author's explanations of Key Performance Indicators. Truth be told, on any other occasion, those three words would have caused our eyes to glaze over and we'd have skipped to the next inspiring idea or anecdote. But Dave Harris does an excellent job of explaining the issues behind using things like league tables and revised exam structures to measure success. For anyone who knows that the issues are issues, but isn't 100% sure why the issues are issues because sometimes the issues are written about as if we all know already why the issues are issues, this book is for you!

    Written by another author, -˜Brave Heads' would be a completely different book. Dave Harris' honesty, wit and personal style shine through (in fact, we never thought we'd laugh out loud at a book aimed at Headteachers!). If you are in management, it should provide a refreshing change to the sorts of Headship advice manuals out there. It's the fact this isn't a manual that sets it apart. The author is very clear that different situations call for different leadership styles and that the ideas he has used to good effect shouldn't just be replicated. Bravery is having the strength to do things your way because deep down you know your way is the right way (No.8!)

    There's a great quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson in the introduction: “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.” How fantastic is that? Bravery isn't some golden quality for only the er-¦ brave.

    Which is advice Jim Hacker could have done with.

    If we had one criticism of the book, it would be that the title, cover etc. makes it look like a book for Headteachers. Don't be fooled, though. Whilst it belongs on any self-respecting school leader's bookshelf, if you've got aspirations of moving into management, need to understand that your Head faces the same doubts and fears as the rest of us or simply want to be encouraged to be a braver classroom teacher, -˜Brave Heads' is well worth a read.

    Think of the word -˜Heads' in the title as being the bit that sits on top of your shoulders.

    We all need a brave head, now and again, don't we?
  5. It has been a great privilege to work alongside Dave as a fellow headteacher because of his unstinting commitment to his role as Principal of Samworth an inner city academy in Nottingham and his positive contributions to our Nottingham City Secondary Education Partnership. There is no doubt that his background of Senior Leadership both as a deputy and headteacher has equipped him with the skills and expertise to set up this new academy and to drive forward education in the inner city. I admire his passion and personal determination to live out his core values based on a set of key principles that places the child at the centre. He is a man of great integrity and uses the outcomes of research by leading educationalists to inform his vision and priorities for school improvement. He values the views of all stakeholders and also has the confidence of his sponsors to challenge Government policy and practice where necessary. It is great to share in the celebration of his success as he journeys to provide the best possible opportunities for our young people living in the inner city. The key to this he believes is Bravery! This is an honest and frank account of a road to success.......

  6. Brave Heads, the latest book from Dave Harris, works as both a very useful handbook full of practical tips that any new headteacher would be wise to adopt, and a timely reminder to more experienced leaders about what matters most in leading schools. For both, it emphasises the perennial privilege of being a headteacher, namely that one is a driver of change that benefits children and communities.
    The book takes a refreshing look at both the challenges and joys of leading a school, describing the bravery needed by a headteacher in respect of: facing up to external political imperatives; the design and delivery of the curriculum; the choices one makes aimed at securing both short- and long-term success; the leadership styles one may adopt at different times; and the wealth of research into school leadership that can have real-world relevance and application.
    In the first section, Harris describes the inner conflict that can be experienced by headteachers, when, as a public servant working within a system often determined by politics, what one is required to do runs contrary to the values-driven leadership one is attempting to model; it is what some would term existential angst, occasioned by being forced to act in bad faith, against one's own beliefs and empirical knowledge about what is right. The paradox is also evident in Harris's own writing. He acknowledges that for the headteacher, every day is an act, is about adopting a persona for effect, even suggesting at one point that all heads should need an Equity card to do their job properly. He writes that, -˜The good leader-¦is marked out by the way in which his or her internal rollercoaster of self-doubt, negativity and sheer desperation is rendered invisible to the outside world'. He defines bravery as -˜the individual's ability to maintain high external optimism at times of lowest internal optimism'. Yet in the section specifically on leadership, the repeated mantra is -˜Be yourself'! (Although, even this position is perhaps playfully undermined!)
    Harris's writing often models and reflects the kinds of leadership behaviours he espouses. Some of his admissions and deeply personal accounts are searingly honest, such as when he describes his suffering from a stroke whilst at work, this anecdote and others providing very real examples of the vulnerability, self-knowledge and willingness to be self-effacing that he argues later in the book are essential qualities of successful school leaders. Yet he skilfully avoids becoming morose or depressing when dealing with often very dark subjects, such as the almost constant sense of fear and anxiety which brave heads must face and overcome, because his writing is riddled with humour and a keen sense of a liking for the bizarre and the absurd, even for occasional silliness. Again, this is all part of the plot: Harris wants us to remember that, whilst educating children is a deeply serious endeavour, people of all ages learn best when learning is fun. All of these qualities, epitomised by the often squiggly, quirky, hand-drawn illustrations (no highly-polished glossy this publication) add to the sense of integrity and authenticity.
    The reader should not be surprised at this realism, however, because Harris has walked, and continues to walk, the talk. When he writes about innovation, or the need to engage the local community, he does so from a position of authority, having headed up not only one of the country's first 3-19 all-through school settings, but also the very first academy to be sponsored jointly by business and a university, both establishments rooted within communities suffering from significant levels of deprivation and low aspiration. In fact, for this reader, the book is a poignant reminder of one of the original stated aims of the sponsored city academies movement, namely to make a significant contribution to local community regeneration.
    Full of dichotomy, the work itself shifts seamlessly from the intellectually erudite, epitomising what Harris refers to as the -˜informed leader', to direct, pithy advice for practical strategies and coping mechanisms. Indeed, once again, this approach demonstrates the author's point: research evidence and pertinent, high quality information (as opposed to just data) collected within the school, should be used in conjunction to develop and deliver the most appropriate school improvement strategies. For Harris, such strategies are often -˜big' in scale: the projects are big, the posters are big, and so is the ambition. -˜Aim for the sky' he implores as he outlines the twin-track approach to sprint (short-term) and marathon (long-term) improvement measures.
    And it is in sticking to his own beliefs, informed by the research of an enquiring mind, through thick and thin, far more than in some of his near-cynical critiques of the current powers that hold sway, that Dave Harris has demonstrated his own bravery, epitomising the aphorism that -˜education is fundamentally an imaginative act of hope '. And if the author has one message, and, indeed, if I have a message for the author, it is this: -˜Keep acting, imaginatively and hopefully', because our children and communities continue to need Brave Heads.

  7. The are few things in the literature of school leadership as compelling and authentic as a leader telling his own story in an analytical and rigorous way. Dave Harris has achieved this in a highly engaging account of his own leadership which combines a powerful narrative with thoughtful reflection and careful analysis. He skilfully combines theory and practice so that each informs the other in a way that enhances understanding and relevance.

    At a time when many of the fundamental assumptions about school leadership are being questioned Dave Harris focuses on the ideas of personal authenticity and moral courage in a way that provides a compelling model for all school leaders - not just head teachers.

    Brave Heads is a personal narrative, a powerful synthesis of current thinking about leadership and an invitation to reflect on and review how leadership might need to change to respond to a turbulent and often contradictory environment.

    It is a powerful and very welcome addition to the literature on how leadership needs to develop in order to create an educational system rooted in authentic values and a belief in the transformational potential of schools.

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