June 2017


  • Core values
    As statements of values go, ours at ASCL is simply magnificent, says Geoff Barton. It crystallises what we do, what we stand for and how we work: “We speak on behalf of members; we act on behalf of children and young people.” More
  • Leading the way
    Headteacher and ASCL member Janet Sheriff shares her journey on becoming the first ever black and minority ethnic (BME) secondary headteacher in Leeds and the only female headteacher her school had ever appointed. More
  • Time for change
    Tim Ramsey from LGBT+ organisation Just Like Us says that schools and colleges are key in facilitating open discussion and promoting tolerance and respect. Here, Tim shares his personal experience and says that leaders need to reaffirm their commitment to this issue. More
  • Refocus assessment
    Research Manager Dr David Thomas says that schools have been given an important opportunity to develop a bespoke assessment strategy focusing on pupils’ needs. Here he highlights a new resource designed to help schools achieve this. More
  • Invaluable experience
    ASCL Annual Conference is a priceless opportunity not to be missed says Headteacher and ASCL member Pepe Di’Iasio. Here he provides a summary of the highlights from this year’s event held in March. More
  • Building character
    Headmaster Dr Julian Murphy explains why helping students develop a toolkit of habits to ensure that they flourish is so important and how it can be incorporated into everyday teaching. More
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As statements of values go, ours at ASCL is simply magnificent, says Geoff Barton. It crystallises what we do, what we stand for and how we work: “We speak on behalf of members; we act on behalf of children and young people.”

Core values

I have quoted it endlessly since I took up the post of General Secretary a few weeks ago.

Values is a concept that is deep-rooted in our Association, because in school and college leadership we are constantly making decisions where we know that the outcomes ripple out across the lives of the young people and staff we lead. Rarely are our decisions neutral or without wider impact.

Thus, our business managers take decisions that are, of course, on the surface, about finances or premises. But more profoundly, they will be helping a leadership team to shape its priorities on what matters in our institutions. Similarly, the assistant or deputy head who has responsibility for setting up next year’s GCSE options blocks, is engaged in much more than a mechanical exercise. They are deciding on pathways for a young person’s future.

And so it goes on, through every role at every level of leadership in every type of institution. Primary, secondary, college or academy, maintained and independent – our members are engaged in decisions that are underpinned by moral values. It’s what we do, and why even in the most turbulent times, being a school and college leader carries a sense of wider social purpose and responsibility.

I remind myself of this all the time. As you can imagine, an unexpected event in becoming General Secretary was what happened in my first hour. I’d just unpacked a box of books, proceeded to meet the full team of staff at our Leicester HQ, when news broke that a snap General Election had been called.

So, even more than predicted, over the next few hours and days the ASCL team at HQ was inundated by questions on policies and approaches as they emerged from different political parties and think tanks.

Which did we agree with? Which did we think would work best? Which did we think were policy non-starters?

If you have at the heart of your institutional values, a mantra like ours – to “speak on behalf of members but act on behalf of children” – then you can’t go far wrong.

In responding to any questions, we would think, quite simply, will this proposal help our 18,000 members to do the right thing for the children and young people they oversee? If so, we should explore it more; if not, we should say so, and propose a more effective alternative.

It’s as simple as that, and I know that our values statement will continue to be my touchtone in responding to any questions about principles or practice.

Principled curriculum design

Just over a week into my new role, I spoke about principles at one of our conferences for members. It was in fact our second annual Curriculum Summit – an oversubscribed one-day event for school and college leaders. Two of our specialists – Suzanne O’Farrell who leads on curriculum and assessment, and our primary expert Julie McCulloch – were at the heart of the day, making sure that delegates were provided with the latest insights from the DfE, Ofqual and awarding bodies.

My role was to frame the day with an opening address about principled curriculum design.

No curriculum, after all, is neutral. As soon as we decide that something should be taught, based on knowledge or skills passed from one generation to the next, then we are making a decision about what is important, about what we value.

Some of this is done for us – as in the National Curriculum and inexamination specifications. But in my talk, I wanted to raise three issues.

First, with any curriculum – whether it derives from central policy or exam syllabuses – we should be clear about why we think it matters.

Thus, as, say, Head of English, I should be able to answer the questions: ‘What is English for at our school? Why does English as a subject matter? What does it help young people to achieve?’

The same questions apply to any subject. They are important because a generation of school leaders used to a National Strategies ‘delivery’ approach, may be out of the habit of drilling into the ‘why’ of their subject. Instead, it is too easy to focus solely on the ‘what’ of the scheme of work and the ‘how’ of classroom delivery. As Simon Sinek says in his book of the same name, we should always ‘Start with Why’.

My second point when talking at our conference about the principles of curriculum design was about ‘distinctiveness’. This is where we, the experts, decide what our young people in our own distinctive contexts particularly need to learn or know. As Deputy and then Headteacher in a Suffolk school, I was conscious that we were in part of the world steeped in history. I wanted every young person – whether ultimately they choose to study history or not – to know about the invasions, the place names and the events that shaped our town and surrounding villages. I wanted them to know about the distinctiveness of our context.

This included giving greater emphasis to showing the UK as a diverse country, celebrating different cultures and languages and building partnerships with schools in other countries. It was the principle of ‘distinctiveness’ that helped us to decide that we owed it to our students, living in a pretty monocultural part of the world, to prepare them to take their places as genuinely global citizens.

Social justice

Finally, in exploring what we might mean by principled curriculum design, we come back to social justice. How can we help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to experience the same kind of opportunities as those from better-off homes? It’s a mission for all of us to continue to work to narrow the achievement gaps between rich and poor.

Some of this will be about what we do in the classroom, such as making sure that Pupil Premium students sit at desks where they will get maximum attention. It will certainly involve teaching the concepts, vocabulary and conventions – the ‘therefores’ and ‘howevers’ – that won’t be in the linguistic bloodstream of some students.

Then there are the activities that provide young people with opportunities outside the classroom. As Headteacher, I became fixated on retrospectively annotating the programme from a music concert, school production or the attendance list of our weekly debating society. I’d use a highlighter pen to note how many Pupil Premium students had been involved.
After all, achievement doesn’t always just happen. Sometimes it needs a bracing dose of social engineering to make sure that the student who lacks the confidence to attend a lunchtime club or after-school rehearsal is nudged to do so.

All of this is about us building our curriculum around principles. Thus, a good starting point in any discussion about what we teach might be a collective agreement to ban any sentence that starts with the words ‘Ofsted says …’ or ‘Performance measures require …’

Let’s start with what’s right in our own contexts. Let’s start with why.

If you have at the heart of your institutional values, a mantra like ours – to “speak on behalf of members but act on behalf of children” – then you can’t go far wrong.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary