February 2018


  • Relish the change
    Geoff Barton reflects on his personal journey at ASCL over the last few months and how 2017 has led to a shift in thinking around wider education policy and context. More
  • Real world, real learning
    Businesses can support schools and colleges in preparing students for life and even help develop resilience, says Confederation of British Industry (CBI) President, Paul Drechsler, but they need to understand the challenges that educators face if they are to help young people gain the skills and knowledge the country needs. Here, he talks to Julie Nightingale. More
  • Getting ahead
    Deputy Headteacher Allana Gay explains the philosophy behind Black, Asian and minority ethnic educators (BAMEed), the network helping ethnic minority staff aspire to leadership roles. More
  • Shaping careers
    Senior Research Manager Claudia Sumner says the government's new careers strategy is a step in the right direction, but research shows that a combination of measures are required for a successful, long-term solution to careers guidance. More
  • Next steps
    Two essential questions to answer in the quest for a headship or principal post are: Is it what I want and, Am I what they want? Aiming to join a Senior Leadership Team (SLT) as its leader requires you to consider these in order, says former ASCL President Allan Foulds. More
  • Plan for all seasons
    A curriculum represents the entire daily experience of each pupil, so designing it and evaluating its impact requires deep and detailed thinking. ASCL Curriculum and Assessment Specialist Suzanne O'Farrell sets out the key areas for consideration. More
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Geoff Barton reflects on his personal journey at ASCL over the last few months and how 2017 has led to a shift in thinking around wider education policy and context.

Relish the change

There’s an old Yiddish proverb that I frequently trot out: “To a worm in horseradish, the world tastes horseradish.”

When I first read this line in Malcolm Gladwell’s brilliant book of essays, What the Dog Saw, I confess I was baffled. I still don’t know if I’ve quite got it right. But my interpretation of this quirky epigram is that sometimes we are so immersed in our familiar environment, in our habits and in our culture that we forget that there are other ways of doing things.

Thus, to a worm in horseradish the world tastes horseradish. It’s all the worm knows.

I think of this because it’s now ten months or so since I stepped out of the rhythms and routines of leading a school, 32 years after I first dipped a youthful toe into the teaching pool and spent a subsequent career oscillating between mostly swimming and sometimes sinking.

It was only when I was elected as ASCL’s General Secretary and left behind those familiar rhythms of school life, with its plethora of fixed events and institutional routines, that I realised how much they were in my bloodstream. The first few lunchtimes at ASCL HQ in Leicester were particularly unnerving. I felt guilty for not standing at a lunch queue having conversations with young people while taste-testing their chips.

And I still can’t walk anywhere without doing what every school and college leader seems instinctively to do – stooping to pick up rogue pieces of litter. This is us in our element, in our horseradish.

Mood shift

But one of the things that has been notable over the past six months or so, is how some of our established ways of thinking are starting to shift, not just in our schools and colleges but at a national level. There’s a growing sound of new mood music.

The DfE, for example, increasingly seems to recognise that grand plans and big visions aren’t what we need right now. We need stability. We need trust in the people leading education in their schools, academies and MATs. And we need time.

There’s an apparent acceptance that some of the short-termism that comes with political cycles is hindering rather than helping us to raise standards for young Geoff Barton reflects on his personal journey at ASCL over the last few months and how 2017 has led to a shift in thinking around wider education policy and context. people. Thus, the Department’s Social Mobility Plan, launched last December, provides a welcome new template, recognising that the needs of one place – say Blackpool – may be different from the needs of another – say Norwich. We’re seeing more nuance, fewer proposed quick-fixes, a more relentless focus on the things that make a difference.

Justine Greening’s personal emphasis on working with the profession to develop a teacher career strategy and to encourage us to keep exploring flexible working, was greatly welcomed and we are very sad to see her departure. However, we welcome Damian Hinds to the post and look forward to working with him in a constructive manner.

My guess is that there’s always been more flexible working in the system than ministers have recognised, but it may be that new technology platforms, and not just a reliance on the bureaucracy of email, may help to create job shares, distance mentoring and other ways of building staff collaboration more easily into the working day.

Ofsted’s tentative strategy for 2019 onwards reinvents some aspects of inspection, such as giving less punitive weight to safeguarding as a limiting judgement, rethinking the questions it poses and working towards more meaningful reports that reflect the distinctiveness of different institutions.

Then there’s a host of people making a powerful, evidence-based case for reducing teacher workload. The old expectations of endless personalised marking are squeezing too much joy out of too many teachers’ lives, without demonstrably helping pupils to learn as much as we might have hoped. When it comes to assessment, we really do need to do some things differently.

As Simon Sinek says in his book Start with Why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action, organisations can easily be consumed with what they do and how they do it. He exhorts us to ‘start with why’, to go back to the principles of why we do the things we do.

Lead the way

This is where I feel the greatest sense of optimism. I saw it in Northern Ireland where school leaders are gaining international recognition for the work they are doing. I saw it in Scotland where the inspection system is being rebuilt around what matters most (including pupil engagement and participation beyond the classroom). And I saw it in Wales where there’s a palpable sense of excitement around the new curriculum that is being developed.

In England’s schools and colleges, we are beginning to note more leaders saying that we can’t just keep on flogging the system, jumping through the same accountability hoops and presiding over systems that feel too mechanistic. Instead, more people are talking about, say, character education – the human qualities that will help our children and young people to outpace robots, as the age of artificial intelligence (AI) gathers momentum.

More people are reaffirming a curriculum that has an academic core with a more explicit emphasis on the broadening power of the arts and sport.

And there’s an increasing desire to frame the education debate around all of our children and young people – those who traditionally gain too little notice, or those at the margins who need adult guidance more than ever, and those who, after eleven years, gain a grade that isn’t deemed worthy of the national standard. We have to do something on behalf of all of these children and young people.

That’s why our Annual Conference this year in March is going to be a game-changer. Called ‘Leading the Way’, it’s an opportunity for educationists, employers, business leaders and policy makers to step back and reflect on the young people’s skills and aptitudes we are developing for the future. It’s going to be a conference that sets a bolder agenda.

And, in the spirit of lifting ourselves out of the daily hubbub of our schools and colleges, it will be the perfect opportunity to network, share, learn and debate. It will provide a psychological breathing space – either on your own or with fellow members of your leadership team – to hear and talk to national speakers, other public servants and fellow school and college leaders. In doing so, we’ll all be able to hammer out further our own values, our own non-negotiables.

So enjoy this issue of Leader. I hope you find it informative and inspiring. And do try to make it to ASCL Conference 2018. You deserve some respite from the horseradish.

... sometimes we are so immersed in our familiar environment, in our habits and in our culture that we forget that there are other ways of doing things. Annual Conference

Annual Conference 2018

Have you booked your place at ASCL Annual Conference in March yet? Book online at: www.ascl.org.uk/annualconference

Geoff Barton
ASCL General Secretary