August 2017


  • Leading thoughts
    Geoff Barton reflects on his journey meeting hundreds of school and college leaders since taking up the role of ASCL General Secretary three months ago. More
  • School heroes
    Character and resilience education helps pupils to develop important life skills says former Headteacher Ben Slade. Here he highlights a new programme being delivered by ex-service personnel in schools. More
  • Be prepared
    Recent incidents in Manchester and London affected everyone, including many of our own pupils and staff, says Headteacher Richard Sheriff. Here he highlights what leaders can do to prepare for such instances. More
  • Sense and accountability
    ASCL’s Primary and Governance Specialist Julie McCulloch on the current problems with primary assessment and the launch of a new ASCL-led independent review of primary accountability. More
  • Keeping your head
    Reassuringly, new research from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has found that retention of headteachers in the education system is about 90%. However, there is still work to be done, as this figure does appear to be declining over time says NFER’s Karen Wespieser. More
  • Education post-brexit
    What should education look like in a post-Brexit Britain? Here ASCL Director of Policy Leora Cruddas explores the future of our education system. More
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Geoff Barton reflects on his journey meeting hundreds of school and college leaders since taking up the role of ASCL General Secretary three months ago.

Leading thoughts

Ah yes, 'leadership'. It's one of those words that makes us feel better. In pretty much any context it resonates positively, reassuring us that however turbulent times may be, there’s a core of certainty in the world, of direction, of, well, leadership.

Leadership consoles. It calms. It inspires.

But as we hurtle towards the end of another academic year, I’ve been reflecting on what you have taught me about leadership since I was elected to my role earlier this year.

You’ve reminded me of what I instinctively knew through all those years as middle leader, deputy and then headteacher: leadership doesn’t just happen. It’s about the decisions we consciously make. It’s about the messages we communicate to those around us. It’s about the way we play the role.

Since I took up post in April I’ve met hundreds of our members at meetings, at conferences, on visits to schools and colleges and, in particular, at our ‘Shine a Light’ events around the country talking about this summer’s examination season. I’ve also met the people at the very top of our educational institutions and organisations – those making decisions that shape the future direction of national policy.

I’m therefore in the privileged position of seeing leadership in an astonishing range of contexts – from those just stepping into whole-school responsibility to those directing the education agenda.

Leading lessons

Here’s what I’ve learnt so far.

First, leadership is leadership. Whether you talk to one of those new kids on the SLT block, whether someone in an independent or maintained school, or a chief executive, primary head, business manager or head of a national organisation – they talk of pretty much the same issues, the same emotions.

Leadership, it seems, is always about worrying about what to do, but being bold enough also to decide what not to do – what to rule out. This is what distinguishes leaders from managers. These people develop confidence built on evidence to decide that their teams will do better if they declutter the organisation’s focus. Doing less but doing it better builds purpose, reaffirms the sense of mission and makes us feel a sense of momentum in making a difference.

I’m also struck by how personal leadership roles are – how much it feels that we all have to step into a persona. As headteacher, for example, we aren’t just ourselves. We are what our staff, our students and our communities expect us to be.

That was brought home to me with particular urgency and poignancy when I visited a group of Manchester leaders in the wake of the recent terrorist attack. As one of the headteachers put it: “Nothing prepared me for just how much society as a whole expects from its headteachers.”

He’s right, and it’s something we need to think much more about.

Across the UK, in fragmented communities, where traditional public services, youth provision and social care get stretched ever thinner or disappear from the scene, so society looks to school and college leaders as beacons of hope in dark times.

This – as the Manchester headteachers said to me – comes on top of the day job, when running schools, raising standards, maintaining a calm ethos and overseeing the lunch queue is simply part of what they do.

I think there’s work here for ASCL, in exploring the community dimension of leadership, in clarifying what society should reasonably expect, and in helping our members to build their resilience and their own support networks in order that they aren’t themselves compromised physically and mentally by unrealistic expectations.

Personal leadership

Finally, and most reassuringly, in my first few months in post, I have been reminded from my conversations of just how personal leading any organisation is.

Many of the people I’ve spoken to tell me how much they worry on behalf of their students and staff, how much they care about them. They reflect endlessly on whether decisions they are making are right, whether their communication is clear and whether they are sufficiently explaining why they are heading in a particular direction.

I find this reassuring because, as I said at the outset, ‘leadership’ can be a slippery, ungraspable concept. With its rhetorical grandeur we can sometimes assume that people are born great and talented leaders … a breed apart from the rest of us.

In reality, leadership is something we develop through trying, succeeding, failing and learning from mistakes – ours and others. Leadership is developed through watching other leaders. It’s something we hone through reading widely. For, as Harry S. Truman put it, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” It’s through inky words on pages that we deepen our leadership insights.

So, as we move towards the end of another school and college year, I want to thank all those who have continued to teach me about leadership, and all those who have supported and encouraged me. Some are people who work within ASCL – especially Deputy General Secretary Malcolm Trobe and Director of Policy and Public Relations Leora Cruddas. But, especially, I want to thank the people I have met and corresponded with in the few months since I took up the role.

I definitely enjoyed my time as headteacher over 15 years and I am enjoying my time as General Secretary of ASCL.

What I hope is that as an organisation, we’ll continue to give you a deep sense of understanding about what it means to be a leader in the education system, that you’ll find our support and guidance second-to-none, and that you’ll benefit from the expertise of our specialist team.

But I hope, too, that through our written communication, through our conferences and courses, when you hit the inevitable dark spells of leadership, when you feel at your most isolated and vulnerable, you’ll know that we’re here for you, always ready to help.

Now, I hope, you’ll get some time to switch off and relax, before the whirligig of a new school year begins. You deserve it.

All best wishes to you and your family for the summer break, and I look forward very much to continuing to work with you and to represent you as the new year begins.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary