2021 Autumn Term 2


  • Clockwork Tomato
    Geoff Barton explores the less familiar areas of leadership in the hope we can appreciate that each and every leader leaves behind an education system better than the one they inherited. More
  • Here to Help
    Supporting you is at the heart of everything we do. Director of Member Support, Richard Tanton, says it's been an exceptionally busy year for his team, advising and representing leaders through extremely challenging times. Here he provides an overview. More
  • Considering Headship?
    Taking the step from senior leader to headteacher or principal can be daunting. Here, Headteacher and ASCL Consultant Gareth Burton shares top tips to help leaders considering their next move. More
  • Keeping Track
    As a multi-academy trust (MAT) leader, navigating assessment data across your schools is essential but it can be complicated and time consuming. Here, Sue Macgregor from Alps shares top tips on how trust leaders can better manage the process. More
  • Making a Difference
    Over the last three years, we've put our work on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at the heart of everything we do at ASCL. Here Rachael Warwick, Immediate Past President, highlights the work undertaken so far and shares our future plans. More
  • Levelling Up
    In their new roles, Nadhim Zahawi and Michael Gove have a chance to deliver true levelling up, but it will take more than one policy or initiative to unpick the inequalities behind poor outcomes for some children in education, says NFER's Dr Angela Donkin. More
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Geoff Barton explores the less familiar areas of leadership in the hope we can appreciate that each and every leader leaves behind an education system better than the one they inherited.

Clockwork Tomato

I’m guessing that this is the first Leader article to explore the implications of a clockwork tomato. As ever, here at ASCL we aim to take our readers into the less familiar areas of educational leadership. So more of that in a moment. 

But first, here’s a question for you, the answer to which will baffle, unnerve or liberate you. Assuming you live to the age of 80, how many weeks will you have spent on planet Earth? Take a guess. The answer is in the opening paragraph of a fascinating new book by the journalist Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time management for mortals. 

He writes, “The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. Here is one way of putting things in perspective: the first modern humans appeared on the plains of Africa at least 200,000 years ago, and scientists estimate that life, in some form, will persist for another 1.5 billion years or more, until the intensifying heat of the Sun condemns the last organism to death. But you? Assuming you live to be 80 you’ll have had about 4,000 weeks.” 

So, there you have it: those of us who live to 80 will spend just 4,000 weeks on our majestic planet. 

I’m guessing that for most of us, the thought that our life is reducible to such an apparently small number is unnerving, at least initially. 

But, as Burkeman says, once we move beyond being unnerved, the number could be seen as a liberation: “Arguably, time management is all life is.” 

Lots of us in leadership are obsessed with managing our time, always up against deadlines and appointments, our working lives ruled by the relentless rhythms of lessons and breaks and duties and meetings and terms and half-terms. 

And it was my well-meaning but largely futile attempts to stay vaguely on top of administrative tasks, to fight back against the tyranny of emails, that I first encountered Oliver Burkeman’s writing – and that clockwork tomato. 

The Pomodoro technique 

Burkeman wrote in The Guardian magazine for many years about topics like time management. And one week he wrote of something called “the Pomodoro technique” (tinyurl.com/w82ds4p3).

This is a breathtakingly simple way of retraining your mind to stop being so easily distracted. A silly clockwork tomato (yes, you read that right) audibly ticks for 25 minutes, during which you focus on the one task you want to complete. I’m using the online version now while writing this piece. 

Subliminally, the ticking is telling your brain to stay on track, to focus on the task in hand until – 25 minutes later – the ticking is replaced by a bell or alarm sound (you decide) designed to say ‘well done’ to your brain for avoiding the distractions of emails, social media or making a diversionary cup of tea. 

I remember telling Year 11 students about this approach in the run-up to their GCSEs. It was part of our programme of revision techniques for an age of distractions. 

And once they had got past the sensation of feeling bemused that someone whom they’d assumed would exude self-discipline actually relied on a ticking tomato app, many of them tried the approach and found it helped them to revise in 25-minute blocks. 

I have to say the Pomodoro technique never quite helped me with my bigger time management challenge. Every day, in every leadership role I’ve had, from Head of English to the job I do now, I’ve never quite managed to break what was my daily cycle. 

Thus, every day starts with good intentions and a tick-list of things to do. Every day ends with the disappointment of having failed to get so much of it all done. As head, I would bring in a briefcase of work to complete at some point in my office. In reality, real life would intervene, I’d want to be out and about and that same briefcase of the same documents would head home with me, untouched. 

So it was then and so it is now. 

Lasting legacy 

Therefore, those of you hoping for some good practical advice from this column on time management will be disappointed. You’re reading the wrong person. Instead, I want to use that notion of 4,000 weeks to explore a bigger point, and it’s one prompted by the endlessly slow process of feeling we’re emerging from this pandemic and wondering when it will finally end. 

Many of the messages I receive from our members exude frustration and weariness. We’ve all been locked in logistical challenges for so long that it’s hard to see the bigger picture, or remind ourselves of what ‘normality’ looked like in our institutions. 

Yet, one day, we – the generation who led our pupils and students, our staff and communities through the uncertainties of the Covid years – will stop and look back at what we have learnt, and what we achieved. 

As the great Greek statesman Pericles said: “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” 

And what I see from where I sit is, yes, leaders who are grappling with so much of the everyday, talking a language we didn’t know two years ago – ‘self-isolation’, ‘lateral flow tests’, ‘nasal swabs’ – and finding it hard not to feel mired in an endless logistical swamp. 

But what I also see is how you demonstrate the deep sense of humanity that characterises great leaders – the understanding of leaders’ roles in providing reassurance and clarity, exuding calm authority and articulating optimism even when we feel ground down inside by all we are doing. 

You are, as Pericles put it, weaving a more hopeful lasting legacy into the lives of others. 

And as an Association – as you’re seeing from our work on the ASCL Blueprint for a Fairer Education System (www.ascl.org.uk/blueprint) – we are determined to harness that understated hope, to ensure that once all this is over, we, with you, have played our part in leaving an education system that is better than the one we inherited. 

 Even if we haven’t yet quite conquered time management.

Geoff Barton
ASCL General Secretary