Embrace the power

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Spring Term 1 2023

ASCL President Evelyn Forde MBE says that as we emerge into a post-Covid era we need to regroup, seize the agenda and look forward with a renewed sense of optimism. But most importantly, we need to be empowered.

The theme of my year as ASCL President – and of our Annual Conference in Birmingham – is ‘ empowering leadership’. 

When I landed on that phrase, back in the balmy days of last summer – as we emerged from the shadow of the Covid pandemic blinking into the prospect of brighter days ahead – it seemed like a good time to be talking about what we as leaders can do for our students. 

After all, it is the purpose of education to give young people, through the acquisition of skills and knowledge, a sense of agency; to empower them to take control of their own destinies, rather than to feel at the mercy of fate, and in many cases, other people’s prejudices. 

And that sense of empowerment flows through from us as leaders also having agency – the time, space and freedom to think about the culture and curriculum we establish and nurture in our schools and colleges. 

Time and space were in short supply during the pandemic when we were frantically firefighting just to keep things going. The demands of delivering remote education, of plugging staffing gaps, of dealing with everything from free school meal vouchers to on-site Covid testing to teacher assessed grades, was all-consuming. 

So, viewed from the sunny uplands of last summer, it was a good moment to regroup, seize the agenda and look forward with a renewed sense of optimism. 

However, there were, without wanting to labour the weather metaphors, dark clouds on the horizon. Staff recruitment and retention has never gone away as a problem, but it has re-emerged as probably the single biggest issue facing the education sector. Covid has something to do with this. It established hybrid working in many jobs, and the flexibility of being able to work from home for at least part of the time is an added incentive towards those careers. 

But, in truth, this would have been less of a problem had it not been accompanied by long-term pay erosion and workload pressures in teaching – a profession that has been undervalued and overburdened by the government for many years. The cost of living crisis then brought matters to a head with the pay award for 2022/23 – of 5% for most teachers and leaders – well below the rate of inflation once again. To add insult to injury there wasn’t enough funding available for schools to be able to afford even this level of pay award. And this time, teachers and leaders really had had enough, leading to a wave of ballots – including a consultative ballot by ASCL – and strike action by the National Education Union (NEU). 

Where we will be when you read this – I am writing this in mid-February – is difficult to know. Suffice to say that there has been very little time or space for anything other than dealing with staff shortages, industrial action and – as it has turned out – another wave of winter illnesses. 

Political instability has not helped. This time last year, the then Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, was mapping out his big vision for education via the Schools White Paper – all schools in a trust by 2030, new literacy and numeracy attainment targets and so on. Four education secretaries and two prime ministers later, the Schools White Paper is in tatters, and Rishi Sunak’s grand vision is compulsory maths to 18. 

Empower yourselves and your students 
All of which leads me to a conclusion about how we carve out the time and space to ensure we continue to empower ourselves to empower our students – we need to get stroppier. For example: 

  1. View any political whizzbang pronouncement with a healthy dose of scepticism. It probably won’t happen and will disappear down a policy drain in due course. There’s no need to jump to the latest tune, because the tune is likely to change.

  2. If you get the call and an inspection team turns up on site and it becomes clear that you are not getting a fair hearing – complain, complain and keep complaining. And if you still don’t get a fair hearing, then contact ASCL – that’s what we’re here for.

  3. Tell your governors and parents about the funding and recruitment pressures that you’re having to cope with and encourage them to write to their MPs. There’s a reason why you’re not able to put a qualified maths specialist in front of a class – it is the fact that there is a nationwide shortage of these rare creatures caused by years of real-terms pay cuts. Make sure everybody knows.

  4. Do talk loudly and often about all the brilliant things that your school, college or trust does – your culture and curriculum, sporting and artistic achievements, the sense of community and belonging.
    We have to fight the drip-drip of negativity about education that infests parts of the media and political establishment. You are the greatest advocates for education, and you have a powerful voice.

  5. Know when to draw a line in the sand. There are many, many calls on your time – from parents, governors, regional directors, various lobby groups on various themes, and so on.
    You simply cannot meet all those demands – and you don’t have to. A polite “no” or “I’ll look at that later” together with an explanation about the need to prioritise, is a perfectly reasonable response. Your time is precious. Protect it. 

I offer these observations in an effort to define empowerment in an era when there are a lot of factors that can make it extremely difficult to secure that sense of agency. 

At some point in the future, our political masters may see sense and look to ease the pressure on the education system. They may figure out that any system is bound to be more successful when it is properly resourced, and it is not overburdened. We can but hope. 

But, in the meantime, we must wrest back a sense of control. Empowering leadership needs to be something that we do for ourselves. 

Evelyn Forde MBE
Head of Copthall School in Mill Hill, London, and ASCL President 2022/23

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