Change Dynamics

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Issue 122 | Spring Term 1 2022

Geoff Barton looks beyond the issues of the ongoing pandemic and focuses instead on what another year in education may have in store.

I suppose it’s fair to say that people have mixed feelings about January. Some people miss the garish glitz of the festive season, as the lights and baubles are packed away into boxes once more, and life feels greyer and flatter. Then, for some, Dry January brings a chance to reboot our brains and bodies. For others, Dry January makes this the longest and most tedious time of the year. 

But whatever your view of January, it’s a month that affords us a chance to clamber onto some higher ground in order to peer across the educational landscape at what may lie ahead of us. 

And that’s what I’m going to do. Which means this column is one that is largely Covid-free. I’ll try to look beyond the logistical issues you’re still dealing with over the anxieties and uncertainties of the ongoing pandemic, and focus instead on what another year in education may hold in store. 

First, it’s worth reminding ourselves that political cycles are just that – political cycles. Thus, politicians come and go. Ministers are parachuted into new roles. Officials jump to a new policy theme. Announcements are made. Speeches are delivered. And then the cycle starts again. 

And that’s what’s currently going on, at different speeds and in different ways, across the UK. We’re seeing various reforms, on differing scales, in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. 

Change is afoot 

So, in England, a new white paper is being brewed. This is when a government decides to reset its priorities by setting out a new set of priorities. And we can see that there are several ideas built around developing the future of the teaching profession, a renewed focus on literacy and numeracy and a view that all schools should ultimately be part of families or trusts. 

These are similar to points we make in our Blueprint for a Fairer Education System (www.ascl.org.uk/blueprint). We think the time is right not just to have an Early Career Framework, but for a more ambitious philosophy of what being a teacher in the 21st century should mean. 

We believe that whole-school literacy and numeracy have never had the full attention they deserve. And we know that schools and colleges working in partnership, with strong governance, and supported by an accountability system that rewards collaboration rather than competition, is what we need now. 

So, we are pleased to be directly and frequently involved in discussions with the government as its plans take shape. And we are delighted that our Trust Leadership Advisory Group – comprising ASCL members who are leading trusts of all shapes and sizes – are spear-heading the thinking on this and contributing to meetings with ministers. 

We’re pleased also to bring our knowledge of the curriculum to any talk of literacy, numeracy and assessment. In particular, those voices of the forgotten third – the young people who after 12 years in school don’t gain the dignity of a ‘standard pass’ – are echoing ever more loudly around the corridors of Whitehall. We have to do better on their behalf, to reward them for what they can do rather than penalising them for what they apparently cannot. And a government that talks of levelling up simply won’t be able to do so if a third of young people are written off each year. 

Meanwhile, in Wales, there’s an incredibly radical set of reforms around curriculum, assessment and the shape of the school day and year. Our reformulated ASCL Cymru Council and Executive, led by the indomitable Eithne Hughes, are deeply involved in all of this, urging cautious pace if reform is not to be derailed by excessive haste. 

Then there’s Northern Ireland. At our conference in Belfast just before Christmas, what was most striking was the appetite from members to do more to build a support network for one another, to build professional learning communities and to explore the power of digital technology to help learners to learn in different ways and to address some of the workload issues of teachers. 

Similarly in Scotland, our colleagues at School Leaders Scotland (SLS) are helping to shape an agenda of ambition plus rigour in the next stage of Scotland’s programme of reforms. 

All of which is to say that change is afoot. I don’t think we’ll see some of the high-stakes transformations that some people have been calling for. GCSEs, for example, are here to stay for a while longer. 

Creating an equal system 

But there’s no doubt that, from where I sit, the serious thinking is happening around what a more equitable education system might look like, how technology might drive more personalised assessment and how the work–life balance of teachers and leaders might finally – after all these years of talking about it – be addressed. 

Some of this is coming from politicians and their advisers. But what has struck me most is that there’s a wider coalition building – of educationists, exam boards, parent groups and the teaching profession itself – saying: “We have a good education system. But now we need to make it world class.” 

And there’s one more area of change that is coming from us, specifically, at ASCL. It’s the work of our various groups and networks – women leaders, BAME leaders, and our LGBT+ network – which is helping to demonstrate that ASCL represents school and college leadership not just as it looks now, but as we believe it should look in the future. 

The message is this. Whatever your age, whatever your background, whatever your personal characteristics, our Association couldn’t be prouder to be representing you – and in doing so, ever more publicly and visibly, sending out a message to the next generation of teachers and leaders that people like you – people like us – should shrug off any sense of imposter syndrome and recognise the deep importance of your role and status as a leader. You matter. A lot. 

So, hello January, and welcome to the shifting tectonic plates of the educational landscape. We’ve been waiting for you. With all my best wishes for the year ahead

IT’S WORTH REMINDING OURSELVES THAT POLITICAL CYCLES ARE JUST THAT – POLITICAL CYCLES. THUS, POLITICIANS COME AND GO. MINISTERS ARE PARACHUTED INTO NEW ROLES. OFFICIALS JUMP TO A NEW POLICY THEME. ANNOUNCEMENTS ARE MADE. SPEECHES ARE DELIVERED. AND THEN THE CYCLE STARTS AGAIN...

Geoff Barton

ASCL General Secretary
@RealGeoffBarton

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