2019 Summer Term

Features

  • Lead the debate
    We are the ones running schools and colleges, so we are the ones that should be doing the thinking about the future of education rather than leaving it to those who aren't directly guardians of young people. We need to come forward and lead the education debate, says Geoff Barton. More
  • Peace of mind
    Every day we hear how our mental health and wellbeing, and especially that of our children, is deteriorating. So, what can we do in our schools and colleges to help? And how should we be responding as leaders? Young people's mental health advocate Pat Sowa, a former school leader, shares top tips. More
  • Flying the flag for funding
    Funding Specialist Julia Harnden highlights ASCL's continuing work to keep the funding flag flying high while we await more details of the government's forthcoming spending review. More
  • No limits
    Stephen Gabriel had his sights set on headship from early in his career and puts tackling inequality for the poorest children at the heart of his vision as a leader. He talks to Julie Nightingale. More
  • No magic wand
    Schools and colleges are already doing as much as they possibly can to help combat knife crime, but without sufficient resources and the help of other public agencies, schools alone cannot and must not be expected to solve all of society's ills, says Headteacher Carolyn Roberts. More
  • The struggle for survival
    As an increasing number of colleges struggle for survival, Dr Anne Murdoch summarises the government's new support and intervention policy and argues that the focus must shift to funding colleges properly to prevent them getting into difficulties in the first place. More
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We are the ones running schools and colleges, so we are the ones that should be doing the thinking about the future of education rather than leaving it to those who arenít directly guardians of young people. We need to come forward and lead the education debate, says Geoff Barton.

Lead the debate

For many years, as deputy head and then headteacher, I coached the school debating teams. In truth, when I started, I didnít know much about debating. Iíd assumed it was like public speaking Ė a world of highly prepared speeches and polished enunciation.

But I quickly came to see that debating was something different, something more spontaneous, sometimes terrifying in its expectations. Pairs of students would be given 15 minutes to prepare their case on a myriad of unseen topics Ė from reintroducing the death penalty, to restricting use of cosmetic surgery.

Here were pupils, often as young as 11 or 12, being expected to stand and speak, usually without notes, for five minutes in a manner that would convince the judges that this teamís world view was the winning one.

Whether arguing for prison reform, criticising government foreign policy or trying to persuade the audience that Neville Longbottom was the true hero of the Harry Potter novels, pupils gained remarkable skills Ė confidence, quick-wittedness, an ability to cope when things go wrong.

Thus, for 15 years, my Fridays would end in the school library where 80 or more young people would turn up at the end of the day for tea, cake and an almighty row.

And, in truth, of course, itís not just debating that does all of this; itís what a well-rounded education is about. As the social historian RH Tawney said, ďWhat a wise parent would wish for their children, the state should wish for all its children.Ē

So, day in and day out, what happens within our classrooms,but also in our assemblies, on our sports fields, in our debating chambers Ė these are the skills and values we pass on to young people as they prepare to step into adult life.

Deeper Concerns

I mention all of this because, increasingly, Iím meeting people who are expressing deep unease with too many aspects of our education system. I donít just mean the funding crisis, the relentless problems in recruitment and retention and the unrealistic expectations and inappropriate conduct of too many parents.

Thereís something deeper than all of that, with things that matter most being pushed to the margins.

I spoke to one headteacher who continues most to inspire me. He runs an all-through academy and puts into practice the belief that itís only through working directly with families Ė helping to give every child the habits of learning before they even begin school Ė that we can begin to narrow the gaps between children of different backgrounds.

He puts the rhetoric of social mobility into practice, managing to deploy staff and other agencies to make a powerful difference in a challenging community.

And when I bumped into him in London recently, he said how gloomy he felt Ė about Britain, about what the Brexit debate has done to our national self, about our education system. Hereís one of those people Iíve always turned to as a beacon of optimism suddenly exuding deep-rooted gloom.

Itís what Iím increasingly hearing, people saying to me, ďThe system is unsustainable. We canít go on like this.Ē I see too many good people seeking routes out of education because the pressure is simply too relentless, the expectations too personally crushing.

Headteachers in Cornwall said to me recently: ďLetís not tinker with the education system anymore. Letís change it.Ē

Make a change

So, I think back to those young debaters, articulating so passionately how they would sort climate change, tackle homelessness and make the world fairer. Because the first rule of debating is to present an alternative world view, to show how your ideas would make the world better. And, as a profession, we need to do the same.

Thatís why ASCLís view of changes to the Ofsted framework has been supportive. Itís not that we think the new framework will be perfect or without problems. But we see it as better than the data-fixated inspection system of the present and, crucially, a stepping stone towards a different world of accountability. 

We are increasingly asking what a new world view might look like Ė where should we be aiming with inspection and accountability so that the way our schools and colleges are held to account becomes proportionate and equitable? 

Parents currently consider inspection reports an important element in making a judgement about a school. Would a future world of peer-to-peer reviews by leaders, leaving Ofsted just to focus on the schools that need more formal inspection, be welcomed by parents or would they see it as too cosy?

If we think robust self-evaluation is the future, what does it look like in practice and how would we take parents and other stakeholders with us? If we think the four-point grading system is unhelpful, what would replace it? Would a words-only report be too bland, too unfocused, a bit like TripAdvisor but without the ratings? And what would we replace the current punitive system of performance measures with Ė something different? Something more rooted in what we believe matters most in education (wellbeing, participation, happiness?) Ė and how would any of that be measured?

One of the things Iíve learnt during this first half of my tenure as General Secretary, is that members of ASCL have far greater influence than we realise. We arenít a think-tank. We arenít a group of people who once worked in schools but now sit on the outside and talk about education.

We lead schools and colleges across the UK. And we should be leading the thinking, developing a view of how education could be, what it could look like, testing out those ideas, presenting them, taking parents and politicians with us. 

And thatís what Council Ė your elected representatives Ė will increasingly be doing, harnessing your thoughts and ideas, not just in response to education as it is now, but developing a compelling roadmap for where we should be heading.

In TS Eliotís extraordinary poem, ĎThe Love Song of J Alfred Prufrockí, the anxious, self-absorbed narrator says, ďDo I dare disturb the universe?Ē

Itís time for us to talk about education as it could be, not just as it is. Itís time for us to dare to disturb the universe.


We lead schools and colleges across the UK. and We should be leading the thinking, developing a view of how education could be, What it could look like, testing out those ideas, presenting them, taking parents and politicians with us. 


Geoff Barton
ASCL General Secretary
@realGeoffBarton

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