Talking Heads Blog #2: Jarlath O’Brien

Leadership Biography

Name: Jarlath O’Brien

Phase: Secondary

Sector: Special

Region: South-East (Surrey)

Years Served in Education: 16

Years Served as a Headteacher: 6

Leadership Journey:

Physics teacher in a comprehensive and in an independent selective school > Head of Department in a comprehensive > Assistant Headteacher in a BESD school > Deputy Headteacher in a 2-19 special school > Headteacher at Carwarden House Community School (an 11-19 special school).

Leadership Coach/Mentor/Inspiration:

I take leadership inspiration from a wide range of fields. Tom Sherrington is the Headteacher that has unwittingly taught me the most and I also look up to Stephen Drew for his fierce resolve and unshakeable belief in truly comprehensive education. Joe Schmidt and Paul O’Connell from the world of rugby are humble, intelligent leaders. The determination shown by Helen Keller (1880-1968), American humanitarian and disabled rights activist, who became deaf and blind before the age of two, yet graduated and campaigned all her life for the rights of disabled people, is an inspiration.

Twitter Handle: @JarlathOBrien

Blog: Jarlath’s Blog

Leadership Reflections

Why did you become a Headteacher?

I’m a firm believer in putting your money where your mouth is. I have always felt that it is unacceptable to sit on the sidelines and moan about a problem or a situation. If I have a view about how something could be improved, or if I want to influence how something is done then I have always believed in taking on the responsibility for either leading on getting that thing done or weighing in behind a leader and helping to the best of my ability. “Lead. Follow. Or get out of the way.” This is what has led me ultimately to becoming a Headteacher. I am prepared to trade the workload, responsibility and stress for the chance to run things in a way that I think maximises the life chances of the children I am fortunate enough to serve. It was also one of the main drivers for me volunteering as a Special Constable with Thames Valley Police a few years ago. I had the time to spare, I wanted to support our local police force, improve the community and improve myself so I decided that I should do it.

Why did your role/ school appeal to you?

All of the life outcomes, educational or otherwise, for children with learning difficulties are dire. I’ve written about them in many places (you can learn more in my book ‘Don’t Send Him in Tomorrow’) but they are largely unknown by the general public and to many education professionals. Leading a special school appealed to me because I can explicitly focus on leading an organisation that has a sharp focus on improving these outcomes for these children any which way we can – it is our de facto school vision. I don’t think I would have been able to have the same focus in a mainstream school. If I reflect on my time teaching in a comprehensive school I took it for granted that all of the students would live and work independently – that is far from certain for the majority of our students at Carwarden House

How would you like to affect change in the system?

I am concerned that there are more children than I’m happy with in special schools who should be in mainstream schools. There are a fair number who’ve come to us over the years whose needs could and should have been well met in mainstream schools but ended up leaving, typically because of their behaviour. I, and many other colleagues, are trying to improve the visibility of the special schools’ sector so that colleagues can know more about how we can support them with outreach work, teacher and TA training and with joint-working. I hope then that more schools feel more confident in teaching children with learning difficulties well.  I would also like to put a stop to the shameful practice of illegal exclusion. It is a stain on our profession that seems to go largely unchallenged and is tacitly accepted.

How would you like to change the perception of Headteachers?

I worry that the job of Headteacher is too unattractive to too many teachers. There is a perception that Headteachers, or SLT, are ‘other’ and have little or nothing in common with class teachers which saddens me. We also still like our leaders to be bullet proof and that worries me. I hope that in our school I am able to demystify the role and allow colleagues to see what the job actually entails and to see that we’re as vulnerable as anyone else. Because we all carry out our day-to-day work in siloes we don’t often get to see what our colleagues are actually doing and Headteachers are no different. I’m sure many teachers wonder what Headteachers actually do all day long. In our weekly staff bulletin all of my appointments and diary dates are in there so I hope that staff can see at least some of what I’m up to. Visibility is important to me too so I also try to make sure I do every break, lunch and bus duty every day too and be on the corridors and around school at those key times to ensure changeovers are smooth.

What have been the highs and lows of your role as Headteacher?

The highs for me are undoubtedly when we succeed with a child that has had to leave another school. There have been quite a few now over the years and they generally arrive feeling that schools are unsafe places to be. They also feel a strong urge to quit on their own terms as they are sure that we will eventually get tired and give up on them, so far better to quit at a time of their own choosing.

We know that it takes a serious investment in time, effort and love (yep, I said it) for them to realise that we are solid, that they will struggle and fail, daily, but that struggle will be met with unstinting support and that learning can and will be a rewarding experience for them.

Sadly, six fathers have died in my six years as a Headteacher, including one in the last week. Schools are tight, intensely human communities and such tragic events shake the whole organisation. In my early years as a teacher two of my students were murdered by one of their friends and our school ground to a halt for a week. It did, however, bring out the best in us and I remember vividly watching the Headteacher at the time doing an amazing job holding us all together. I hope I never have to deal with such a tragedy in my time as a Headteacher.

What makes you get out of bed every morning?

These statistics…

Children with learning difficulties:

  • will die at least 15 years younger than the rest of the population;
  • will be twice as likely to be bullied at primary school than their peers;
  • will be seven times more likely to receive a fixed-term exclusion from school than their peers;
  • will be seven times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion from school than their peers;
  • will be seven times less likely to work as adults than you;
  • if lucky enough to work, will probably work part-time, probably for low pay;
  • are twice as likely to live in poverty as you;
  • are over four times more likely to have mental health problems as a child than their peers;
  • are more likely to have children with their own learning difficulties than you;
  • are at least three times more likely to end up in prison than you.

My colleagues and I are doing everything we can to improve this appalling set of outcomes. That’s worth getting up for every day.

Leadership Advice

I have struggled with self-doubt and a lack of confidence for as long as I can remember. I once worked for a Headteacher who knew this about me and took me aside one day and asked me to recall a meeting we’d been in the previous day with a number of Headteachers. “Their **** smells the same as yours,” she said bluntly. “Don’t doubt for a second that they’re not feeling all the same emotions as you.” I still struggle with confidence, but I’m prepared to believe that it is common in leaders, and that we are driven on, despite those sometimes crippling doubts, by our vision. Reading those statistics above once  more is enough to help me manage those feelings and get on with the job.

Leadership Inspiration

Recent books that have taught me a lot include:

The Blair Years by Alastair Campbell – learning about how Blair, Brown and others took Labour from the lows of the early 90s to 1997 and beyond is fascinating, especially when read in Campbell’s contemporaneous diary style. Particularly interesting are the repeated periods of self-doubt that struck Blair and how he coped with them. There’s another lesson in there about vision and communication when Blair won the debate about Clause 4.

Fighting for Peace by General Sir Michael Rose – reading how General Rose tried to lead the United Nations Protection Force in Bosnia in 1994-1995 whilst trying to manage the interference from the Americans, Russians and others and retain a focus on peacekeeping and humanitarian operations is fascinating.

Leadership Mantra

‘Serve to lead’.

I am a big believer in leadership as service. Too often Headteachers can be put on a pedestal and the role can be caricatured as the lone Wilshaw-esque figure dragging a school up on their own. School improvement has always been, and will always be, a team effort. I am there to serve the team, not my own ego.


One thought on “Talking Heads Blog #2: Jarlath O’Brien

  1. Jarlath – thank you for sharing so much of your identity and back story with us. Your open, honest sharing of your own vulnerabilites remind us that male leaders have confidence issues too. I agree with your that “the job of Headteacher is too unattractive to too many teachers” which is precisely why I started this blog. Your reference to being ‘bullet proof’ leaders reminded me of Viv Grant’s keynote yesterday – she told us we don’t need ‘super heads’, but instead ‘superhearts’ leading our schools.


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