December 2018


  • Divergent Pathways
    Education across the UK is heading in different directions and one day, says Geoff Barton, we'll look back and see that we've all been part of an extraordinary educational experiment. More
  • You're not alone
    Managing a school can be the most rewarding and the toughest role of your life, says one headteacher. Here he describes the support he received from ASCL in helping him through a low point in his career. More
  • Lead from the middle
    Headteacher Andrew Clay explains the evaluation and planning model he uses at Coundon Court School to help middle leaders develop their critical thinking and evaluation skills, and produce effective departmental improvement plans. More
  • Planning for PSHE
    CEO of the PSHE Association Jonathan Baggaley sets out the implications of mandatory health and relationships and sex education, and shares tips on how schools can prepare. More
  • A year in review
    Chief Social Scientist Angela Donkin reviews the research carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) in 2018. More
  • Mark my words
    Latest research by Oxford University Press (OUP) has revealed a significant and increasing word gap in schools. To help address this, two OUP experts share some teachers' practical steps. More
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Education across the UK is heading in different directions and one day, says Geoff Barton, we’ll look back and see that we’ve all been part of an extraordinary educational experiment.

Divergent Pathways

I’m writing this in the middle of the season when ASCL goes on tour. At our Regional Information Conferences, we meet members from every part of England. President Richard Sheriff and I also take part in ASCL’s conferences in Wales and Northern Ireland, and we attend School Leaders Scotland’s annual conference. In other words, we get about a bit. 

All of which gives us the opportunity to hear what your concerns are, and to see first-hand the way that education across the UK is heading in divergent directions.

Different approaches

The most ambitious reform programme is in Wales, where there’s almost no element of educational provision that’s not being fundamentally redesigned. The curriculum, qualifications, conditions of service for teachers and leaders – all are undergoing significant rethinking. 

In Northern Ireland, there’s a real mission to overcome the debilitating political deadlock and the deepening funding crisis to make sure there’s ever more focus on the skills and knowledge that young people will need in a fast-changing world. 

In Scotland, too, there’s been significant curriculum reform, and exploration of more delegation of decision-making from the centre to schools themselves. 

Meanwhile, in England, about half of all young people are being educated in academies, and there’s a growing ambition to find ways of emphasising collaboration over competition. 

In other words, across the constituent parts of the UK, we are seeing education being done differently. 

And as an organisation that represents about 19,000 members working in every part of the UK, ASCL is ideally placed to see what we can learn, collectively, from these different approaches, just as we can learn from colleagues who work in various types of schools and colleges – faith-based, independent, post-16, all-through and so on. 

It’s this eclectic membership that gives us our strength when we speak to ministers and officials, and when we campaign on your behalf on the issues that matter most. 

We’re also ideally placed to remind ourselves that, amid such policy divergence, we have far more in common than we sometimes realise, wherever we work. 

This was a core theme at the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) in Manchester in October, where colleagues from the full range of independent schools that HMC represents maintained a conference focus on shared fundamentals – the mental wellbeing of pupils, curriculum breadth, pedagogy, and leadership. 

Amid all the national talk of budget cuts, recruitment and retention problems, and the sheer pace of change, it’s always good to be reminded of our core job as guardians of the UK’s children and young people, charged with the responsibility to prepare them to take their place as citizens in a complex world. That’s precisely what HMC leaders were able to do, giving themselves some mental space to think of the skills and knowledge that young people will need in the future.

 Because increasingly, as various jobs disappear to automation, we’ll need young citizens to be equipped with the skills that will show them to be adaptable, problem-solving, self-assured and highly literate. 

 Literacy has rarely mattered more in a world of informationoverload, where the ability to interpret, reflect and judge what is real from what is fake make communication a pre-eminent skill.

Opportunity for all

You’ll see that literacy shows up in this issue of Leader. Because in all of our discussions across the UK, one recurring theme is what we should do on behalf of young people too easily left behind in an education system that places such emphasis on measuring success through a narrow set of qualifications. 

Last summer, for example, about 190,000 Year 11 students in England alone will have concluded the first twelve years of formal education with a GCSE grade 1, 2 or 3 – a grade deemed not to be a ‘standard pass’. It’s more than a third of the national cohort. 

As Roy Blatchford, the Chair of our new commission of inquiry into English (see, says, “We thus have a schooling system which, after 12 years of compulsory education, awards around 190,000 young people a qualification at age 16 which is not recognised as educationally and socially worthwhile. A basic passport to further education and employment has been denied. Where is the common dignity here? And what does this perceived failure do for individual self-worth?” 

With ASCL’s proud mission to “speak on behalf of members and act on behalf of children and young people”, here’s an example of where we are aiming to do the latter – to investigate what it would need to give young people the ‘dignity’ of achieving something that has currency with employers, and provides them with a sense that their educational journey so far has had a purpose and reward. 

Closing the word gap 

Underpinning all of that, of course, will be children’s ability to use language – in their speaking, reading and writing. That’s why I’m pleased that in this issue of Leader we provide some insights from Oxford University Press’s interesting project, ‘Closing the Word Gap’.

As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein put it, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” 

Thus, the words we know, and the range, the variety and the confidence to deploy the right word in the right context, are essential skills for all of us. They are also part of how we get judged. So, the pupil who writes, ‘In the experiment magnesium was placed in the petri-dish’ will be judged as cleverer than the one who writes, ‘I put the magnesium into the dish’. Vocabulary matters.

We have much here to learn from our primary members, rooted as they are in curriculum leadership and the technical vocabulary that their pupils are required to learn through Key Stages 1 and 2. We have much to learn from our colleagues in FE who do so much to help young people who have sometimes lost faith in education to regain their sense of purpose and optimism. 

All of which is a reminder that while we never forget our core business – supporting and protecting members, especially in times of deepest need – we’re also keen to shape the future of education, so that any child, in any type of school or college, whether in Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man or England, gets an entitlement to the richest possible education, irrespective of their background or circumstances. I hope you enjoy this edition of Leader.

It’s always good to be reminded of our core job as guardians of the UK’s children and young people, charged with the responsibility to prepare them to take their place as citizens in a complex world.

Geoff Barton
ASCL General Secretary