Book Review Comment Leadership and Management

I Feel It In My Fingers, I Feel It In My Toes

Can a successful school be built on the foundations of love? And what does that even mean or look like in practice? In the inspiring book "Parklands: A School Built On Love" head teacher Chris Dyson shares the story of how he has steered a school towards the seemingly impossible dream of high achievement, personalised support and complete inclusion. Here is my review of the book everyone is talking about.

“When I visited Parklands before being offered the job as head teacher, I saw wall displays splattered with ink from where pens had been thrown. The children would lob them across the room and play the game of “it wasn’t me” when the teacher turned around. That was going to stop as soon as I was in post. I had higher expectations. It would be the end of colouring in and boring lessons.”

Dyson, C. (2022)

Educational philosophy aside, whether or not the approach to teaching and learning fits with personal beliefs, the two books which have fascinated me the most from the “true school story” genre are Marie Stubbs Ahead of the Class and David Winkley’s Handsworth Revolution

Both books painted a picture of life in a school; the community in which those schools stood and served; the lives and fortunes of children, families and staff; and the legacy left by the very defining leadership in which the books describe so well. 

In a way, these books are bibles for school leadership: not “how to” manuals, but inspiring stories which demonstrate how a certain approach and a special leadership can make a truly positive difference. 

It is in this rich vein of literature in which one finds Parklands: A School Built On Love. Author Chris Dyson uses the narrative of the book to weave a tale that starts with a school seemingly on it knees (“in the year before I became the head there had been around 150 fixed-term exclusions, which was a record high; staff morale was on the floor; there was a 33% mobility rate of teachers coming in and out of the school”) before describing a journey to high success which is enshrined by OFSTED, the outcomes for the children, and the reputation the school has grown (maths results are Parklands are now consistently in the top percentile of national measures.)

I’ve had the great pleasure of visiting Parklands and seeing the school in action. It is a fantastic place, but the children’s mathematical abilities really stood out. Jaw-droppingly good. For the author, maths was the obvious place to start:

“My forte was maths, particularly times tables. It made sense that I chose to make it my first initiative at Parklands. It was my way of showing everyone that children from Seacroft can achieve as well as anyone in the country.”

Dyson, C. (2022)

Rather than an instruction kit for school leaders, Dyson is at pains to emphasise the need for school leaders to find their own way and move at their own pace (“one of the problems I find as a national leader of education is that schools are often trying to change everything at once – initiative overload is a very real problem in school improvement. One thing at a time is my mantra at Parklands; it is even on the school improvement plan”) And so his book comes to be viewed more as course or direction than a hard-definition map. It is punctuated with what Dyson refers to as “Fundamentals” – take this as the road signs which point the direction to success. Beautifully forms hints and tips which are both accessible and down to earth, and full of hard-earned wisdom and insight all at the same time:

“Kindness and generosity drive goodwill and take on their own momentum.”

Dyson, C. (2022)

As for success itself? The book arrives at the implicit conclusion that this is all about inclusion:

“Compassion, inclusion, integrity and availability. Treat people in the way you would like to be treated to get the best out of them.”

Dyson, C. (2022)

Split over 8 diverse chapters – all aspects of running a school are covered with equal importance, from “Leadership” to “Learning” to  “Taking Care of Business” – the golden thread throughout is the author’s philosophy of “love” (“create the conditions for love to grow.”) In fact, hidden amongst tricks of the trade for speaking to the media, and entangled within advice on improving school revenue streams, are tidbits of the author’s belief in the power of love in the school system. Instilling a love of learning, leading through love and creating strong systemic and transformational change through love (the “carrot” as Dyson often calls it) is brought to life by the author through principles and passion. 

This is a book that can’t be ignored. On the one hand a story of how a school came to be saved. On the other, an inspirational blueprint for school leaders everywhere who want to build a strong and successful school through the power of love. I implore school leaders everywhere to read Parklands: A School Built On Love.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Parklands: A School Built on Love is available now, published by Crown House

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