Book reviews

The Passing of a Country Grammar School
Peter Housden (2015)
Living on the Edge: rethinking poverty, class and schooling
John Smyth and Terry Wrigley (2013)
Education under Siege: why there is a better alternative
Peter Mortimore (2013)
New Labour and Secondary Education, 1994-2010
Clyde Chitty (2013)
Politics and the Primary Teacher
Peter Cunningham (2012)
School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education
Melissa Benn (2011)
Children, their World, their Education
Robin Alexander (ed) (2010)
Education Policy in Britain
Clyde Chitty (2nd ed. 2009)
School behaviour management
Lane, Kalberg and Menzies (2009) and Steege and Watson (2009)
Supporting the emotional work of school leaders
Belinda Harris (2007)
Faith Schools: consensus or conflict?
Roy Gardner, Jo Cairns and Denis Lawton (eds) (2005)
The Professionals: better teachers, better schools
Phil Revell (2005)
Education Policy in Britain
Clyde Chitty (2004)
Who Controls Teachers' Work?
Richard M Ingersoll (2003)
Faith-based Schools and the State
Harry Judge (2002)
The Best Policy? Honesty in education 1997-2001
Paul Francis (2001)
Love and Chalkdust
Paul Francis (2000)
State Schools - New Labour and the Conservative Legacy
Clyde Chitty and John Dunford (eds) (1999)
Experience and Education: Towards an Alternative National Curriculum
Gwyn Edwards and AV Kelly (eds) (1998)
Bullying: Home, School and Community
Delwyn Tattum and Graham Herbert (eds) (1997)
Bullying in Schools And what to do about it
Ken Rigby (1996)
A Community Approach to Bullying
Peter Randall (1996)
Teacher Education and Human Rights
Audrey Osler and Hugh Starkey (1996)
Troubled and Vulnerable Children: a practical guide for heads
Shelagh Webb (1994)
Supporting Schools against Bullying
Scottish Council for Research in Education (1994)
Bullying: a practical guide to coping for schools
Michele Elliott (1992)
Financial Delegation and Management of Schools: preparing for practice
Hywel Thomas with Gordon Kirkpatrick and Elizabeth Nicholson (1989)
Reforming Religious Education: the religious clauses of the 1988 Education Reform Act
Edwin Cox and Josephine M Cairns (1989)
Re-thinking Active Learning 8-16
Norman Beswick (1987)
Two Cultures of Schooling: The case of middle schools
Andy Hargreaves (1986)


Supporting the emotional work of school leaders
Belinda Harris, 2007
London: Paul Chapman Publishing (Sage Publications)
193 pp., 20.99 (paperback), ISBN 978-0-7619-4468-3

Review by Derek Gillard
August 2008

copyright Derek Gillard 2008
This book review is my copyright. You are welcome to download it and print it for your own personal use, or for use in a school or other educational establishment, provided my name as the author is attached. But you may not publish it, upload it onto any other website, or sell it, without my permission.



For thirty years now, politicians have sought ever greater control of education in England. The process began with Prime Minister Jim Callaghan's Ruskin College speech of 1976 and the 'Great Debate' which followed. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher's administrations, supported by the tabloid press, invented an 'education crisis' as the pretext for political intervention, which culminated in the 1988 Education Reform Act. This imposed a content-based National Curriculum (in which teachers had had no say), a grotesquely complicated edifice of targets, testing and league tables, a privatised inspection service (Ofsted) whose main purpose seemed to be the humiliation of 'failing' teachers and schools, and a system of funding which forced schools to compete with each other rather than cooperate. From 1997 Tony Blair's 'New Labour' governments increased the level of political control still further. Where the Tories had told teachers what to teach, New Labour now told them how to teach it. And Blair's education ministers appeared to take a positive delight in 'naming and shaming' so-called failing schools.

This political interference has done enormous damage to education in England, but it has also been traumatic for those involved - for the teachers and pupils, and for the school communities in which they work.

It is against this background that Belinda Harris seeks to 'draw on extensive personal and professional experience of working in schools, on empirical evidence and on the literature of teacher effectiveness, human relations, counselling, school improvement and educational leadership to propose a more dynamic, inclusive and relational stance towards school change.' (p.2) She rejects the task and performance models of school improvement which politicians have imposed and seeks 'to place people, relationships and learning back in the driving seat of change'. (p.2)

The first two chapters of her book set out the context in which the emotional life of communities, schools and individuals is played out and offer an overview of what is meant by the emotional work of leaders in that context.

In her introductory chapter, Harris outlines the purpose of the book and explains its empirical base. She argues that 'the current social, political and economic climate has depersonalised communities and cut people off from internal and external sources of care and support ... It is the inability of governments to engage teachers' hearts and minds and to involve them as partners in policy making that is one of the key failures of school reforms and one which has had serious consequences for the power dynamics of relationships experienced in classrooms, staffrooms and playgrounds.' (p.5-6)

In Chapter 2 Leading in an emotionally challenging context Harris argues that the many changes schools have had to endure - including the effects of globalisation - have had a negative impact on people's sense of their own efficacy, worth and well being. She uses the term 'repetitive change injury' to highlight the prevalence of traumatic stress in schools and the disturbing rise in mental health problems in young people.

Chapter 3 The emotional work of school leadership explores the emotional conditions which support the development of inclusive learning communities. Harris argues that 'If one of the purposes of education is to effect a more humane society, then change is needed in the individual and collective psyche of schools and communities'. (p.35)

In Chapters 4-9 Harris draws on empirical data to identify key factors supporting the emotional work of school leaders and suggests ways of nurturing these in self and others.

Chapter 4 Developing emotional awareness focuses on enhancing emotional awareness. Leaders need to keep in touch with their inner experience if they are to respond appropriately and authentically to the daily opportunities and challenges they face.

Chapter 5 Understanding personal process emphasises the need for self-acceptance, including the less palatable aspects of self. Without this, leaders may be limited in their capacity for emotional experiencing and relating to others. '"Tuning into" self allows the more vulnerable and disowned aspects of self to be known and appreciated as valuable sources of information. Appropriate humility helps to protect the leader from a gradual slide into arrogant and grandiose ways of being and to sustain the capacity for empathy that is central to the work of teachers and leaders.' (p.83)

Leaders can be as vulnerable as those they lead, so Chapter 6 Wounding self and others offers suggestions for navigating a path through 'two-way wounding'. 'A leader's capacity to acknowledge their human vulnerability is one essential ethical safeguard to prevent them from hiding behind or abusing their status and power.' (p.92)

Chapter 7 Values: a process approach explores the role of values in creating and sustaining inclusive schools. 'Re-establishing trust in teachers, in leadership and in schools involves not just agreeing a vision or a set of school values but ensuring that these values are embodied in the behaviours of all staff and therefore experienced as predictable and consistent over time.' (p.111)

Creating vibrant communities of practice is emotionally draining work. Chapter 8 Caring for self and others is concerned with developing cultures of care in which the leader's own needs and the needs of colleagues and pupils are respected and attended to.

Chapter 9 In trauma and in health seeks to explain the nature of post-traumatic stress in young people and the 'repetitive change injury' suffered by teachers and schools. 'New kinds of commitments and relationships are needed to create enough safety, trust and persistence for collaborative, cooperative, mutually rewarding and growthful learning.' (p.12-13)

The book concludes with a postscript in which Harris reiterates her central theme - that 'emotional experience lies at the heart of school leadership and that the most effective leaders work at this level principally intuitively and fundamentally'. (p.171)

She offers a summary of her principal arguments:

  • leadership must be viewed as primarily an emotional rather than a rational activity;

  • a new model of leadership is required which addresses the emotional awareness and congruence of leaders more closely;

  • effective leaders recognise the importance of developing themselves as human beings;

  • leaders must recognise their own vulnerabilities and their capacity to wound others;

  • leadership is about practices not tasks;

  • leadership is a social, moral and ethical process which is fundamentally about raising self-esteem and collective responsibility;

  • leaders must recognise that emotional fragility can sometimes be expressed in ways which isolate and distance the individual from others and must therefore create a climate in which emotions can be safely discharged without fear of escalation, humiliation or abandonment;

  • leaders recognise the primacy of secure attachment relationships, especially for those who have been traumatised and emotionally frozen; and

  • leaders recognise that positive emotions lead to positive cognitions, positive behaviours and increased learning capability.
The book does contain a few linguistic errors which occasionally necessitate the re-reading of a sentence to work out its meaning - plural subjects with singular verbs, missing commas, a couple of split infinitives, inconsistent use of hyphens and the misspelling of 'practise' as 'practice'. Overall, however, Supporting the emotional work of school leaders is a very readable book and it is certainly an important and valuable one.

I commend it to all those involved in the difficult and stressful task of school leadership and to those who aspire to such positions. It offers sound advice based on practical experience, and invaluable coping strategies based on empirical evidence.

It should also be required reading for government ministers!

  • This review was published in Educational Review.