Geoff Barton reflects on these unprecedented few months and says one day leaders will look back at this phase and see how they used a time of crisis to build an even better education system.
One day we’ll look back from somewhere we again call normal and reflect on how we led through abnormal times. We – but especially you – will know ourselves to be the Covid-19 generation of leaders.
For now, it feels anything but normal. You will be reading this early into the beginning of a new school or college year. In my experience, this was always a period of sunny autumnal optimism – fresh faces in the corridors and staffroom, high hopes for the year, crisp uniforms and unblemished expectations. Every start to every new academic year gave a sense of renewal, a reconnection to our core purpose and hopes for the year ahead, imbuing us with an empowering sense that anything might be possible.
That was back in normal times. And, in truth, it’s easy to look back at them through rose-tinted filters. Because it never took too long before we became embroiled in the swirling realities of education leadership – too many issues, too many problems, too many decisions, too little time or headspace. As guru Michael Fullan said, “If you are not confused, you probably don’t understand the situation.”
Well here we are in times that are anything but normal. I’m actually writing this in the surreal hinterland between post-16 and GCSE results. Indeed, it’s on the day when – within an hour or so – we’re expecting the government to implement another policy U-turn, scrapping Ofqual’s mysterious and flawed algorithm and reverting instead to centre-assessed grading.
It feels, as a I type this, a momentous day. But it also exemplifies a momentous time. And amid the lingering anxiety we’ve all felt, the desperate sense that we control freaks hate of feeling not in control, I’m hoping that we will do our rose-tinted look back at this phase of our leadership and see that we used a time of crisis to build an education system that was better than the one we inherited.
The controversial, influential economist Milton Friedman said, “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.” That’s why we ought to aim to make sure that – in one sense at least – the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic produces some positive changes. Let’s explore what they might be.
First, there’s the teaching profession. Those of you who followed our daily briefings from March onwards will know that we regularly returned to days of risk, and often these were around the media portrayal of teachers. The narratives included: teachers are working at home but aren’t setting work; teachers are blocking the opening of schools; teachers aren’t prepared to give up a few days of their holidays, even for the most vulnerable young people; and, latterly, teachers can’t be trusted in terms of assessment.
Much of this media confection hasn’t resonated with the public. Many of our members have reported the heart-warming messages of thanks to leadership teams, teachers and other staff who have done all they can to support pupils in times of anxiety, staying in touch, giving them feedback – and in more extreme cases – getting weekly food parcels to them.
We’ve seen an increase in the numbers of people applying to become teachers – the welcome reversal of a long-term depressing trend. And most recently, during the A level fiasco, we saw an outpouring of faith from young people in the teachers, as opposed to the algorithm, who know them best.
The challenge now is to make teaching a 21st century profession, one that combines a sense of deep moral purpose, that sense of having made a difference to someone else’s life, as well as being a career that finally allows a better sense of work/ life balance. Technology, flexible work patterns and a process of rethinking what learning looks like for some young people needs to become something whereby we shape what the future career pattern of the teacher looks like, rather than let it endlessly repeat old patterns, or have other people’s ideas imposed upon us.
I’d like to think that the Covid-19 generation of leaders will recognise how they navigated tough times with purpose and integrity. Much was, and is, at stake. Those traditional leadership qualities of exuding confidence even when, underneath, you were in a state of panic, of keeping people calm, of endlessly communicating – all of those were at the fore.
Now there’s something more we must do. Because for all the talk that ‘nothing will ever be the same again’, we know from our reading about other times of national crisis, such as the two world wars of the 20th century, that it would be easy to slump into old traditions if you don’t have leaders with reforming zeal.
That’s where we come in. That past ten or more years of education reform have generally been done to us. Now’s our opportunity to show that it doesn’t have to be like this, to articulate that there is a better way.
ASCL’s blueprint document will help to harness this, to do what unions too often haven’t had a mechanism to do – to take the views of authentic, practising school and college leaders, rather than policy wonks, and to map out the changes that will move our education system from being good for many to one that works for everyone.
The challenge now is to make teaching a 21st century profession, one that combines a sense of deep moral purpose, that sense of having made a difference to someone else’s life, as well as being a career that finally allows a better sense of work/life balance.
Children and young people
And that’s where some of the biggest lessons from Covid come. We’ve been forced to embrace what blended learning looks like. We’ve seen the limitations of our exam-obsessed assessment system and seen that the public craves a broader, more balanced range of ways to acknowledge talents, knowledge and aptitudes. And we’ve seen how irrelevant and distracting much of the machinery of accountability can be.
So now it’s time to roll-up our sleeves, keep working through the daily logistical challenges of these strange Covid times. But while we do that, more relentlessly to keep our eye on a different horizon, on behalf of the forgotten third and all the others currently disenfranchised by our education system.
And in doing so, we’ll demonstrate that when young people look for leadership, where they find it most clearly, most authentically, most unobtrusively and unadorned is right here – in our schools, colleges, PRUs and other education establishments.
Don’t underestimate what you’ve achieved over these long months. We look forward to working with you – our nation’s leaders – in the weeks, months and years ahead.
The challenge now is to make teaching a 21st century profession, one that combines a sense of deep moral purpose, that sense of having made a difference to someone else’s life, as well as being a career that finally allows a bett er sense of work/life balance.
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