The Power of Ambition

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Spring Term 2 2022

As we await the publication of the schools white paper, Geoff Barton says for it to truly make a difference to the lives of children and young people, it would take real ambition from the government. Something he believes school and college leaders have in abundance.

There’s a concept in linguistics called ‘idiolect’. It’s how you know who’s speaking to you without necessarily seeing them. It’s their unique use of language. 

Take me, for example. My wife rolls her eyes at me when I use the word ‘snarky’ – which I use a lot. 

‘Snarky’, it seems, is part of my idiolect, along with ‘nuance’, and probably many other very predictable and irritating linguistic tics and habits. 

You’ll be the same. You’ll have your own idiolect, too – words you rely on or resort to. Your idiolect will be part of what makes you you.

But enough of the English lesson. All the above is a long preamble to focusing on a particular idea. And it’s one that’s particularly relevant to ASCL now. 

Ambitious leadership 
If you were at our Annual Conference, or following it online, or reading any of our recent communications, you’ll have seen how much we’re exploring the concept of ‘Ambitious Leadership’. 

It’s led by our President, Pepe Di’lasio, and all of us at ASCL spend time thinking what we might mean by leadership that is ambitious: what does it look like? What does it lead to? 

You’ll know (because I mention it so often) that in the aftermath of World War II, a group of politicians, amid a financial crisis, displayed levels of ambition that led to the formation of the NHS and the provision of state education for every child to the age of 15. This was groundbreaking stuff. 

It was prominent politician Rab Butler who led on education. As his biographer Michael Jago says: “It was Butler who had fathered the 1944 Education Act, a truly revolutionary Bill whose far-reaching, radical proposals earned the admiration and gratitude of post-war Britain. It earned Butler the sobriquet ‘the best prime minister we never had’.” 

Well, here we are, ourselves emerging from another crisis, this time one of public health that has led the UK with depleted funds for reform. But, as those politicians of the late 1940s showed us, ambition is a state of mind rather than something always quantifiable in resources. 

What, therefore, does ambitious leadership mean for education in 2022? 

And my guess is that now – unlike in 1944 – the answer no longer resides in government offices. The Westminster government is about to unveil its schools white paper – an opportunity to reset national education policy and show what it believes are the reforms that will transform education. 

We know that there’s much focus on literacy and numeracy, on behaviour and attendance and on finishing off the reforms of schools working in families. But does this wishlist strike you as ambitious? 

Take literacy and numeracy. In its initial thinking, the government talked of ‘illiteracy’ and ‘innumeracy’, spending inordinate time speculating on what the target for Key Stage 2 tests should be by 2030. While it’s good to have long-term thinking, we know from writing school development plans that merely setting ambitious targets doesn’t actually change anything. It’s what you’re going to do that counts. 

And without a clear plan for literacy and numeracy, the risk is that our old friends ‘unintended consequences’ emerge. For many of us, one great treasure of our education system has been primary schools that develop the talents of the whole child – introducing them to music, giving them their first steps in leadership, taking part in sport, feeling the nerves of a performance, introducing them to a rich imaginative world through reading for pleasure and so much else that characterises great primary learning. 

More numeracy and literacy runs the risk of suggesting that all these other experiences are less important, that pupils may experience less PE and sport, less of the arts, based on a narrow view that emphasising the basics comes at the cost of squeezing out the wider richness of the broader curriculum. 

None of which is me saying that literacy and numeracy aren’t important. They are bedrocks for future learning. But so too are all those other experiences that our primary teachers take so seriously and that risk looking as if they aren’t valued by government. 

Real ambition 
Real ambition from government would be a strategy to tackle child poverty, to wipe it out, recognising that, without this, levelling up will only ever be a hollow phrase. Real ambition would be to embrace the need for a skills agenda that celebrates a broader range of attributes than our narrow qualifications system allows. Real ambition would rethink the punitive ways in which schools and colleges are expected to compete to be deemed successful, and would create a robust sense of collaboration being the only way we can ensure that the most vulnerable in our society get the benefits enjoyed by the advantaged. 

Some parts of the UK are showing this level of ambition, rethinking how their education system works. 

In contrast, the white paper that’s brewing in Westminster runs the risk of looking like a missed opportunity – a technocratic series of tweaks rather than the kind of steps ASCL set out in its Blueprint for a Fairer Education System, which we believe would move us on from good to world class. 

It was German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg who said “ambition and suspicion always go together”. He’s right, of course: ambitious people often provoke scepticism rather than admiration. 

But ambitious leadership doesn’t have to mean doing reckless or misguided things. It means doing the right things in our own contexts – the things that will enhance the lives of our young people, our staff, our communities. 

And it may just be that there’s much more of an appetite for such leadership from you – the people leading our schools and colleges – than there is from the current generation of politicians who, so often, seem constrained by timidity. 

That’s why what you’ll see from ASCL, as we emerge into more normal times, is a commitment to working with you – our growing membership across the UK – to articulate what ambitious leadership looks like and to celebrate you and your teams putting it, quietly and resolutely, into practice. 

Plus making the phrase part of our collective idiolect.

Real ambition would rethink the punitive ways in which schools and colleges are expected to compete to be deemed successful...

Geoff Barton

ASCL General Secretary

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