Book review: Hopeful Schools

Aug. 8, 2017
Michael Earnshaw

Michael Earnshaw

Deputy Headteacher, The Friars Primary School

Book review of Hopeful Schools: building human communities by Mary Myatt

Why do I read leadership books and books about teaching? To pick up helpful hints, to see things from a new perspective, to further my own practice, and to solve problems.

I got all of these things from Hopeful Schools by Mary Myatt. It is an articulately told collection of simple ideas concerning optimism, particularly that things can always get better. Myatt repeatedly demonstrates how our beliefs and language should reflect the idea of ‘hopeful not helpless’.

Although it is not ground-breaking – it didn’t alter my perspective in the way that Daniel Pink’s ‘Drive’ or Ron Berger’s ‘The Ethic of Excellence’ did – elements of it will speak to you deeply. You can almost feel your glass becoming half full while reading.

The structure of the book makes for kindly reading – 42 chapters are spread over 140 pages, with only a few pages dedicated to each idea. The chapters are organised into four distinct sections:

1. The case for hope

2. Attributes of hope

3. Aspects of hope in school

4. Developing hope and wider examples of hope


Some of the chapters will pass you by and some will draw you back for a second reading, but all have a valid – if simple – point to make.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll re-read the chapter entitled ‘No need to be right all the time’. Myatt writes, ‘The loss of security in the short term about being right, can lead to a healthier attitude over time, which means that more rightness can emerge in the long term’. This quote is one of many other simple statements about ceding rightness for long-term gain and credibility.

In my more youthful days, or in the hands of a less eloquent author, I may have scoffed at this idea. Here, it made perfect sense to me, and has left a solid imprint that will have a long-term impact on my practice.

The take-away idea from Hopeful Schools was to be positive and share positivity with others, even when it would be easier not to. ‘It is a real test of character to keep this [moving things forward] going when things are tough’, Myatt says.

The practical advice offered is mostly anecdotal with tips and suggestions woven throughout. One example from the chapter ‘Embracing Obstacles’ tells a story about a struggling student who was a champion kickboxer. He shared his sporting success with his peers and this inevitably led to greater application in his school work.

"You can almost feel your glass becoming half full while reading. "

Many of the anecdotes come from well-known schools and leaders; Highbury Grove, Sir Iain Hall, John Tomsett. These add to the authenticity of Myatt’s warmth and her optimistic words.

By the end of this book, I asked myself whether it had made a difference. I felt that it most certainly had. The best way to explain why is through a series of quotes.

"Mostly [our mistakes] are not life-threatening, so we can live with them."

I am an extremely positive person, but have moments of frustration which can cause positivity to drain. After reading Hopeful Schools, I saw how I could improve my performance and consign my frustration to a thing of the past. I am not helpless to repeat my mistakes.

"The hopeful leader does not trade on the mistakes of the past, but rather, sees the potential of the future."

As a leader, I must show that schools can move forwards. Everyone has the potential to make a positive difference.

"Hopefulness engenders cheerfulness, and in being cheerful, the work is still hard, but is accompanied by an ease and a grace."

I love my job, I love the impact that it can have and I love the environment in which I work. What better way to do it than by being cheerful and graceful.

I put the book down feeling more positive, and understanding what I, as a school leader, need to do have an impact on those around me. Myatt’s infectious optimism shines through every page.

This article originally appeared on the website of the Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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