Len was an experienced and successful head teacher of a large comprehensive school.  He had a commanding presence – tall, slim, a fine head of greying hair and bright blue eyes.  He was alive to every detail of his immediate surroundings.  He moved quickly, spoke assertively and was always attentive and courteous.  Whatever charisma is, he had it.  Quite deservedly, he enjoyed the respect of his staff, the school governors, the pupils, the parents and the local community.  He had consistently raised the standards in his school and received glowing Ofsted reports.

On closer analysis, Len had a number of enviable winning ways.  For a start, he had a reputation for getting things done.  It wasn’t that he was necessarily an original thinker, more that he was open to new ideas, regardless of where they came from, and brilliant at implementing them.  He exhibited the conviction of a true entrepreneur.  Over the course of a number of years, he had succeeded in securing 25% of the school’s total budget from external funding.  This was achieved through a network of charitable trusts, limited companies and corporate sponsorship.  He had, for example, negotiated a special deal with a computer manufacturer to supply laptops for each pupil in the sixth form.  And the school was close to raising the funds to build a new sports centre.

Len’s relationships with the local community, especially with employers in the school’s catchment area, was second to none. He firmly believed that education was for life and made forging close and positive links with the world of work a priority.  As a consequence, he had a cadre of businesspeople he could call on for advice and guidance in such areas as finance, IT and marketing.  His close relations with businesses also meant that pupils were offered a steady stream of worthwhile work-experience assignments.

Len liked to regard all his activities as experiments from which there was much to learn. He always had a number of things on the go – rather like a juggler keeping plates spinning on a long row of bamboo canes.  He experimented with different ways to recruit staff and with different staff development methods.  He experimented with a different timetable, with different teaching methods, with different menus at lunchtimes, with evening activities, with different ways to involve parents in the school’s activities and with ways to treat everything that happened in the school as learning opportunities. 

He resisted the temptation to micro-manage any of these projects.  Instead he trusted his staff and gave them the space, authority and encouragement to experiment.  Not all the experiments succeeded, of course, but that simply led to the identification of valuable lessons learned which were carried over into the next experiment.

Another remarkable thing about Len was that he could unhesitatingly put names to faces.  No one could understand how he did it, but he only had to meet someone, hear their name once, and he’d got it.  There were almost a thousand pupils in his school and he knew every one of them by name.  When, each September, a new intake arrived, he’d have mastered their names within a couple of weeks.  The same skill extended to parents and the many members of the local community he had dealings with. 

Not only did he have many thousands of names and faces stored in his memory bank, but, somehow, he was able to retrieve the right name within a split second.  Perhaps the most impressive example of this was when Len took part in various events organised by the school’s alumni. Even after a couple of glasses of wine, he could remember the names of pupils who had left the school years before.

At an annual dinner to celebrate the school’s 50th anniversary, Len was once again at his sparkling best.  He circulated before dinner greeting people, as usual, by name.  He made a funny speech recalling many of the significant moments in the school’s recent history.  He told a few anecdotes about some past members of staff and pupils who had been notably eccentric.  But all the way through the meal he had been slightly distracted by someone sitting on a nearby table. 

Len was distracted because, most unusually for him, he knew the young man’s face but couldn’t recall the name.  Try as he might, the name eluded him.  After dinner, Len decided to admit defeat and enlist the young man’s help.  Feeling rather foolish, Len said, ‘I do apologise, your face is very familiar but I can’t quite place you.  Where have we met before?’

The young man laughed and said, ‘Earlier this evening.  We were in the gents together!’

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