2021 Summer Term


  • Life through a lens
    Geoff Barton looks back at the unprecedented events of this academic year and thanks members for their extraordinary work in keeping schools and colleges going throughout. More
  • Are you ready?
    Malcolm Trobe CBE shares steps to help you prepare for the Early Career Framework. More
  • Curriculum in a COVID climate
    As we approach the end of what has been a truly challenging academic year, ASCL Specialist Tom Middlehurst looks at the lessons learned and what next for the curriculum. More
  • Better financial reporting
    In May 2019, the DfE published the Academies Better Financial Reporting Programme paper.* Here, ASCL Specialists Hayley Dunn and Julia Harnden outline the programme's progress. More
  • Free schools ten years on
    Ten years since the start of the free schools programme, Jude Hillary from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) shares highlights from an independent investigation looking at the impact of the programme. More
  • Modelling a healthy mind
    Martin Sacree and Jaime Smith explore how senior leaders can work to become a mentally healthy school or college. More
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Geoff Barton looks back at the unprecedented events of this academic year and thanks members for their extraordinary work in keeping schools and colleges going throughout.

Life through a lens

In his book How We Got to Now: Six innovations that made the modern world author Steven Johnson outlines the inventions and discoveries that changed our world. This is his first one:

“In the monasteries of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, monks labouring over religious manuscripts in candlelit rooms used curved chunks of glass as a reading aid.

“No one is sure exactly when or where it happened, but somewhere around this time in northern Italy, glassmakers came up with an innovation that would change the way we see the world, or at least clarify it: shaping glass into small discs that bulge in the centre, placing each one in a frame, and joining the frames together at the top, creating the world’s first spectacles.

“Those early spectacles were called roidi da ogli, meaning ‘disks for the eyes’. Thanks to their resemblance to lentil beans – lentes in Latin – the disks themselves came to be called lenses.” That invention of glass would transform human life. Suddenly we can see ourselves. We can peer at worlds that are far away and we can look deep beyond the surface of familiar life to the structures and cells that lie within.

This is the story of the mirror, the microscope and the telescope.

And what this strangest and longest past year or so of our professional lives has done is something similar. It’s allowed us to see our education system in new ways, warts and all.

The mirror

In the mirror, we’ve seen our schools and colleges for what they truly are. All those metrics, all that language of accountability, all those systems for measuring performances – we’ve seen how deceptive and diverting it all was. When performance tables were abandoned, the world didn’t crash in on us. When Ofsted inspections were suspended, there weren’t parental riots in the streets.

Instead, we were reminded of the deep, hard-wired humanity of our educational institutions, even amid all those alienating Covid restrictions.

As Year 4 pupil James said to his Cambridgeshire headteacher after returning to school from another lockdown:

“I am really enjoying seeing my friends again and it’s good to see my teacher. It is much more familiar to be learning in school. It feels joyful to be back. We can talk with our friends, which really helps and I am pleased to be learning face to face with the teacher again. I love being back at clubs and this week, I am going to archery, fencing and art club, and that is really good.”

James speaks for young people of all ages – grateful to be back within familiar groups and reassuring routines, appreciative not only of what happens within the classroom, but also of the tradition of clubs and activities that surround and enrich them.

So too we saw parents appreciating what teachers and other staff achieved. We saw communities recognising the significance of their local school or college as an epicentre of optimism – of reassurance that one day all would be well. The mirror showed us the best of ourselves.

The microscope

Then there’s the microscope. This exposed forensically the fragilities of our education system – especially, in England, how our obsession with formal exams went hand in hand with a failure to trust in teachers. We saw a narrow world view from beyond our schools of ‘catch-up’ and squalid portrayal of children as a ‘lost generation’ rather than – like the evacuees of World War II – a generation showing extraordinary resilience and fortitude.

The microscope highlighted a tendency to value what can be measured, to find simple solutions to complex contexts.

Most shamefully, it exposed the levels of poverty experienced by young people in one of the richest countries in the world.

The telescope

So from the mirror and the microscope, we move to the world as it could be, how we might look to a better education system through our telescope.

You’ll hear much more about this in the year ahead with the launch of our Blueprint for a Fairer Education System. Our starting point is that across the UK, education is better than the media and politicians acknowledge. It works well for many children and young people but, through our telescope, we can see how it could be better and fairer.

We need a curriculum that motivates, which doesn’t denigrate vocational and technical education. We need a celebration of the things that make us human – head, hand and heart, with a new emphasis on giving the dignity of achievement to those who make things, those whose skills are built on service, helping and compassion.

We need a qualifications system, especially at 16, which is more proportionate, less exam-fixated and records what young people can do rather than what they cannot.

And we need to start judging our schools, our colleges, our leaders and governors by what they do in collaboration with other institutions rather than incentivising competition.

All of that lies ahead.

Before then, I’m hoping that somewhere, beyond some imaginary horizon, you can see the opportunity for a break of some sort. For most of you, it won’t be a summer break like any usual summer break, because too much of what you’ve come to accept as normal is anything but – what with ongoing track and tracing, changes to results days and worries about how the grading and appeals seasons will work.

But, at some point, here’s hoping you’ll be able to come up for air, re-group with family and friends and reflect on the longest and strangest year of your career.

And I hope when you look yourself in the mirror on one morning of your holiday, you’ll see just how much you and your team have achieved on behalf of your students, your staff, your community.

The successes of the past year didn’t happen by accident. They happened because of you.

Winnie the Pooh once said, “People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.”

In your case you did something quite extraordinary. You did the impossible every day. Thank you, and best wishes for your summer break when it finally arrives in the viewfinder of that telescope.

Geoff Barton
ASCL General Secretary