2020 Spring Term 2


  • Rebel with a cause
    Lemn Sissay left behind a troubled childhood to find success as a poet, writer and broadcaster with work highlighting, in particular, the plight of children in care and inequality. He talks to Julie Nightingale. More
  • Trees of diversity
    Making school and college leadership more diverse will ensure our decision-making is better informed and more effective, says ASCL President Rachael Warwick. Here she highlights how ASCL is shining a light on diversity. More
  • Teacher autonomy
    What role does teacher autonomy play in keeping teachers motivated and in the profession? Jack Worth from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) investigates. More
  • Cyber secure?
    Cyber security expert Claire Ashton says protecting your school or college from a cyber attack is vital in order to avoid serious consequences. Here, she shares top tips on how you can protect yourself. More
  • Curriculum, Pedagogy, Assessment
    Professor Dylan Wiliam says school and college leaders need to make explicit trade-offs to improve learning in classrooms. More
  • Blueprint for a fairer education system
    ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton says while many old habits are hard to break, together we can create new and better ones. Here, he highlights ASCL's work on a new blueprint for education. More
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ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton says while many old habits are hard to break, together we can create new and better ones. Here, he highlights ASCL’s work on a new blueprint for education.

Blueprint for a fairer education system

Habits never really disappear”, says Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do, and how to change. “They’re encoded into the structures of our brain, and that’s a huge advantage for us, because it would be awful if we had to relearn how to drive after every vacation.”

The book is an interesting exploration of how habits help us to work more efficiently, conserving brain power for the things that need it (for example, pondering, ‘How will I handle that difficult conversation with a parent later today?’) while cleaning our teeth. Habits free us up for the interesting and creative stuff we like to do.

I was thinking about habits in the run-up to the forthcoming Easter break. This holiday will mark three years since I finished headship, the end of 32 years of being an English teacher.

And many of the habits and routines of all those years remain. I still talk about time in terms of terms and half-terms. I use the word ‘holiday’ because the concept of being ‘on leave’ feels alien. I have to resist the urge in public places to tell people to pick up litter or tuck in their shirts. And if I see a misplaced apostrophe, I instinctively reach for a red pen.

Charles Duhigg’s book tells us what we all know – that it’s hard to break habits, to change long-established routines. And that it’s not just individuals that all of this applies to, but organisations, too.

Force of habit

Ten years ago a single, slim white paper unleashed a volley of change onto the English education system. For the first time, we began to see huge divergence between the vision of schooling in different parts of the UK. That’s why our regular ASCL UK feature in Leader is here – to remind ourselves that we could be learning more from other ways of doing things right on our own doorstep.

That 2010 white paper was called The Importance of Teaching, and it lit the blue touchpaper for grand structural reform – the multi-academy trust system – and seismic changes in pay and conditions, the curriculum and qualifications.

In 2009, a mat was something you walked or sat on; now a MAT is a central organising principle of the English education system. The result is a new landscape, new roles (CEOs and trust leaders) and new routines, many of them dictated by a new organisation, the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA).

All of which shows us how from time to time, big changes shake our existing way of doing things. They force us to change our habits.

Out with the old

That’s why last year, we were proud to give such attention to ‘The Forgotten Third’ – the young people who after twelve years of early years, primary and secondary teaching leave school without the dignity of a publicly acknowledged qualification (www.ascl.org.uk/ForgottenThird).

It was time to question a system that had at the heart of its neurological pathways a built-in acceptance of failure. That’s why we’re continuing to work with Ofqual and various awarding bodies to look at what an English and maths passport might look like – a new form of assessment that shakes off some of the habits of the past.

It’s also why we are proud to have begun such significant work on our new ‘ASCL Blueprint for a Fairer Education System’ – a project that quite determinedly asks questions about why underachievement for disadvantaged children remains so entrenched. Our starting point is recognition that, in England, we do have a good education system but there are some people from some backgrounds for whom it doesn’t work. That is a matter of social justice. So the questions we pose are in a society committed to equity:

  1. What and how should children and young people be taught?
  2. How should teachers and leaders be identified, developed and supported?
  3. How should the education system be structured?
  4. How should the education system be funded?
  5. How should we judge if the system is doing what we want it to?

We are calling for evidence concerning these key questions, using our Council of elected members, listening to other organisations and learning from other education systems in the UK and beyond, and, importantly, we’ll be listening to you, our members. Please respond and share your thoughts with us by 10 April by completing the online form at www.ascl.org.uk/blueprint or by emailing blueprint@ascl.org.uk

Act on evidence

And of particular interest to many ASCL members will be what develops from question 5. This takes us to a particularly unseemly habit of the English, of making those judgements far too dramatic.

When I was in Scotland, at the School Leaders Scotland (SLS) annual conference last year, I recorded a brief podcast with their Chief Inspector, Gayle Gorman. In answer to the question, “Would a headteacher lose their job because of a bad inspection?” she laughed, looked at me incredulously and asked, “Why on earth would that happen?” You can hear the podcast online at www.ascl.org.uk/News/Podcasts

Elsewhere, we see accountability that is more proportionate, built on a recognition that schools and colleges can only do so much. We can help children and young people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, but we can’t make amends for poverty, the impact of austerity, for backgrounds that leave some young people without their own basic habits of learning and of knowledge.

So that’s why our blueprint is an important moment for us as education’s leaders. It’s not a cheap, knee-jerk proclamation of ‘let’s scrap this’ or ‘let’s ditch that’. Instead we’re going to look at the evidence, develop road-tested proposals and build a coalition of support.

And, in the process, all these years on from the publication of The Importance of Teaching in 2010, we’ll be demonstrating that a self-improving system isn’t just about implementing changes mandated by government, or responding to ideas from think-tanks. Instead, we’ll make sure it’s our members – those closest to the ground – who are directly involved in articulating how we take a good education system and make it world class.

That business of thinking and reflecting as well as doing is a really important one. It’s definitely a habit we’ll want to continue to cultivate.

Geoff Barton
ASCL General Secretary