Reflective Reading… Samuel Strickland’s “Education Exposed: Leading Schools in Uncertain Times”

Education Exposed, claims Mr Strickland, as his book title. But reading this short, powerful text, I feel like it’s simultaneously uplifting and depressing… and somehow, I come away feeling like I have been exposed more than education. 

To start with, this isn’t a long book. I think part of the explanation is that he writes in a direct, clear style, almost Feynman-esque. That’s a bold claim, but there is an elegant clarity to his writing that speaks of huge knowledge, worn lightly. This isn’t a book that bashes you over the head with academic and scholarly references. It’s not a collation of his greatest hits, and the best highlights of his career. This isn’t a book that constantly draws on multiple case studies of different people applying the idea in different places. There is a place for many of those things in educational literature, and I enjoy them, but there’s an honest and authentic wisdom in the way that this book speaks directly to the reader, stripped clear of all of the extraneous load that could have been added. 

In a way, that makes the expression of the ideas more powerful. This book is like a conversation with a friend who you trust to tell you straight. It’s the coaching conversation you wish you could have in preparation for a new role. I am reminded very much of the authentic and honest style of Simon Sinek, or some of the military leaders I have seen in their TED talks. 

There isn’t an agenda, there is no railing against a politicised and polemic debate, and many of the concepts aren’t ground breaking by themselves. There are simple, honest truths about a vision of education and how to manage it, through hard work, through discipline and through persistence. They are well crafted and assembled, and though it pains me to accept it, you can tell that he trained as an historian and with real scholarship. There is no magic bullet, no promise of a method for quick results… it’s the exact opposite of a sales pitch.

And yet, I’m sold. Sold on the simplicity of the way Sam speaks and leads, sold on the authentic voice of his experience and how he sets out his ideas. Sold on the idea of working for him, if only I lived nearer, sold on the moral certainty and social justice that sits at the heart of what he is trying to do. 

It’s an inspiring vision of what education can be, as a profession, for the teachers and the people who love it as a career, when it fits with your values and is expressed so simply. I would love to spend time in a school run like this, and it’s the kind of place I could see myself being proud to be part of. I’d love to hear from some of the staff at his school and get their perceptions on how this translates. His book tells me that working would be hard, with sky high expectations of teachers, but that the successes would feel worthwhile, and rightfully earned. 

But this is where, like I’d imagine an encounter with the genius of the late, great Feynman to be, perhaps I feel most exposed. At its heart, the book offers a coach, a manual, and a simple guide to great leadership that I fall short of. I can brush up against it, perhaps, and maybe if I were really lucky, I might get to work for someone like Sam. But I am honest enough to know and recognise that I can’t do what he does, and I know that there are likely few who can. 

And in a sense, that exposes a real challenge to me. Can I accept the challenge of becoming a leader with this clarity of vision? Could I accept being a leader if I didn’t? This book has exposed more than just a vision for education, it’s forced me to think long and hard about my own conceptions, abilities and practices.

It is an excellent read, a worthy statement of ambition and clarity, and a practical and useful workbook to explore your own thought processes. But beware. You may, if you are anything like me, be left with your own uncertainties exposed.

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