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Geoff Barton: “It’s Time To Stop Being Cautious And Start Shaping The Future Of Education”

Our approach has to change, and school leaders should start making moves to change learning for the better, says the General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

  • Geoff Barton: “It’s Time To Stop Being Cautious And Start Shaping The Future Of Education”

Winston Churchill was apparently somewhat envious of school and college leaders.

Of course, they weren’t called that in those days, but it’s to whom Churchill was referring when he said, in a wistful tone, “headmasters have powers at their disposal with which Prime Ministers have never yet been invested”.

This is us – the leaders of the nation’s schools and colleges, and the people I am privileged to serve in my new role as General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), which I take up on 18 April.

I often come back to that Churchill comment. Because for a profession that has at its core the responsibility for the education of society’s young people, we have sometimes seemed over-cautious.

Does leadership have limitations?

If Churchill is right that our powers are so immense, why have we too often felt that the educational policy football has been kicked from one end of parliament to another with us not as participants, but as passive spectators on the touchline?

After all, in our institutions, we set the tone, shape the ethos, decide the systems, monitor the impact, take the flak and enjoy the rewards of success alongside the frustrations of things not working out.

This is what we do on our home patch, confidently surveying the classrooms, offices and corridors of our domain and then acting upon what needs doing.

It’s often second nature; dealing one moment with a difficult child and his or her parent, and the next leading an assembly, observing a lesson, or reading a budget spreadsheet.

And we do this in conjunction with the other leaders across our team - from the eager young rookies gaining their first taste of responsibility to the veterans we rely on as confidential sounding boards and mentors.

That’s why it seems so odd that we sometimes lack the same sense of surefootedness beyond our institutions. Too often in recent years it has felt as if we are perceived as the mere enforcers of policy developed elsewhere - in Whitehall offices or amid febrile brainstorming sessions of over-eager special advisers.

That has, for too many of us, led to a feeling that the clunking gear changes when a new minister has been appointed, or when another announcement emerges in the newspapers, are a distraction from what matters most in our schools.

New priorities for government

That approach has to change. Suddenly, the landscape of education has shifted. We have a newish Secretary of State who, judging from her comments at ASCL’s annual conference in March, and elsewhere over the last few months, is determined to give priority to the most important issue we face.

Justine Greening has many good ideas for raising the status of teachers, for keeping qualified teacher status, for helping school leaders like us to retain the many good people in the system and see teaching as a longer-term career.

She is, in other words, focusing on exactly what matters if the performance of our schools and colleges is to continue to improve. She recognises that 89% of schools are already rated good or outstanding by Ofsted and that further improvement won’t be a result of government tinkering or structural reform.

It will come from trusting in leaders to harness the skills and talents of an ever-better teaching workforce.

If Justine Greening can keep quality of teaching at the heart of her policy, then as school leaders we will welcome that. It’s what we’ve been asking for, and what international research constantly tells us is the only way of raising standards. It’s all about teachers.

A chance to focus on teaching

But there are other reasons to feel that the current educational climate might be favourable. With Amanda Spielman taking over at Ofsted, there’s already a new tone, an urge to keep inspections in perspective, and to make curriculum decisions based on what is right for our students and not what might influence performance tables or Ofsted ratings.

She’s encouraging us, in other words, to be true to the values of our schools and communities. The new team at Ofqual – Sally Collier as Chief Executive and Roger Taylor as Chair – are also sending out messages that the juggernaut of qualification reform will now slow down, enabling teachers to focus on how they teach, rather than endlessly writing new schemes of work.

All of this – plus Dame Alison Peacock placing research and pedagogy at the heart of the Chartered College of Teaching’s agenda – bodes well if we are to make system leadership feel like something in which we are actively contributing as leaders, rather than having policy done to us.

Of course, none of it’s quite so simple in practice.

For that laser-like focus on teaching, we need to have the funding for schools that our young people deserve. It’s where government needs to agree with voters that, just like the National Health Service, our children’s futures require genuine sustainable investment.

So, the money for funding education properly must be found. And we need to see an end to wacky policy wheezes that grab headlines but do little to help leaders guarantee great education for every child irrespective of background.

Values to unite around

Now then is a time of both great challenge and great opportunity. It is an exciting and timely moment to be taking up my new post. My aim is to stay true to ASCL’s values, speaking on behalf of members and working on behalf of children. I hope to do so in a manner which demonstrates integrity and hard work, and exemplifies the ethical standards of leadership which are at the heart of the way we work.

Over the coming months, my priority is to listen and to learn, meeting as many school and college leaders in as many areas of the UK as I can.

Whether we are middle or senior leaders, working in state or independent schools or colleges, we are united in a mission to do the very best for the children, parents and communities we serve.

No wonder Winston Churchill envied the scale and scope of our leadership.


The big three:

Geoff Barton’s immediate priorities as General Secretary:

                       
1.Make a compelling case to government for schools and colleges to be properly funded, so that leaders can focus relentlessly on raising standards
2.Work constructively with government and other agencies to improve recruitment and retention of teachers and leaders
3.Build on ASCL’s strong track record in providing first-rate support, training and guidance, harnessing the skills of experienced members to develop the next generation of education’s leaders

Geoff Barton is incoming General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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