A better world

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Spring Term 1 2021

After the year we’ve just had and for the sake of our children, we need to paint a picture of a better world and that should be part of our leadership legacy says Geoff Barton.

The beginnings of new years generally bring us a sense of optimism. At least, they do in normal times. So, here’s hoping that even in these anything-but-normal of times, we find some post-Covid hope for the year ahead.

To start, let’s look to former US President Barack Obama. After all, if anyone exudes optimism, it’s him. I’ve been reading his magisterial memoir, A Promised Land, in which he tells us, in its first few pages, why he’s writing it and who it’s aimed at. And so, the sense of hope begins:

“I’ve learnt to place my faith in my fellow citizens, especially those of the next generation, whose conviction in the equal worth of all people seems to come as second nature, and who insist on making real those principles that their parents and teachers told them were true but perhaps never fully believed themselves.

“More than anyone, this book is for those young people – an invitation to once again remake the world – and to bring about, through hard work, determination, and a big dose of imagination, an America that finally aligns with all that is best in us.”

That sense of aligning all that is best in us, of being ambitious for a better future, is a characteristic part of the Obama world view.

And after the year we’ve just had, there’s something intoxicatingly relevant for us to cling on to, which is where we need to look to our children and young people – our future citizens, our future leaders. If anyone’s going to change the world, it will need to be them.

And again in the words of President Obama, we’ll want the next generation to decide: “Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?”

Our role in all of this is to help them to do so, in part by painting a picture of a better world. That should be part of our leadership legacy. Hold on to that thought.

Visible role models
At the end of last year, the National Literacy Trust published a report into children’s reading habits. Based on a survey of 58,000 young people, it concluded that “almost a third of children and young people between 9 and 18 don’t see themselves in what they read – and two fifths would like to read more books with characters similar to them”.

It’s a reminder, if we needed one, that when we read inky words on a page or screen, we do so for several reasons. We read to look through the eyes of other people, to see into their minds, their worlds, to explore ideas and values, people and places, to hear stories and concepts that are new to us.

But as that reading survey also demonstrates, we read also to understand ourselves. That’s why seeing people in books who look like us, live like us and behave like us matters so much.

And just as it is in books, so it is in the real world.

You’ll know the frequently quoted mantra “You cannot be what you cannot see.” It’s the idea that we all need visible role models out there, people with characteristics like our own to help us feel we too can be like them – whether they’re sports stars, lawyers, surgeons, politicians … or school and college leaders.

Embracing difference
Through all my years in middle and senior leadership I gave many assemblies but I wasn’t sure what effect they had, how much impact they made, whether they were noted or remembered by pupils or staff.

Except for one.

I had worked for some years with an outstanding colleague who was a brilliant teacher, a fantastic leader. She exuded confidence and calm competence.

And one day – in our school which I’d thought held such a secure sense of its values and principles – she told me something that broke my heart.

Some pupils had seen her in town that weekend with her partner and, as she walked down the school corridors the following day, she heard them whisper snide comments about her sexuality and commenting on the fact that she was gay.

The effect for her was devastating: her self-confidence punctured, her sense of the school’s inclusive ethos fatally undermined.

It was deeply demoralising for me, too. The thought that after all those assemblies, PSHE lessons and policy statements our supposedly tolerant school was not so tolerant after all, left me queasy and depressed.

Which is where that one assembly came from that I know students remembered, because many years on, some of them still write to me about it.

The assembly itself was the first of the new school year. I’d welcomed students back, expressed hope that they’d had a good summer break and said I’d like to show them a holiday photograph.

That summer we’d been on holiday to northern France – me, my wife, and our two boys. And we were joined by my nephew, his partner, and their two boys.

I put the photo up on screen in assembly and said, “Here’s a picture of my holiday – me and my family, and then my nephew’s. You’ll notice my nephew, his partner, who’s male, and their two wonderful, adopted children, one of whom’s white and one of whom’s black.

“Look at that photo,” I said. “It’s my family. And it may look something like yours or it may not. But I want you to know this: I couldn’t be prouder of them – my boys, my nephew, his partner, his children, whatever their colour or their sexual orientation, or any other categories or labels that some people may see. Because what I see is a group of human beings. And I couldn’t be prouder of them all.”

ASCL’s work on equality, diversity and inclusion is still in its early stages (see www.ascl.org.uk/EqualityDiversityInclusion), but already it’s starting to shape an image of leadership that will be more akin to the diverse world our pupils and staff inhabit.

We still have a long way to go. But I couldn’t be prouder that our Association is determined not to settle for the world as it is, but one as it could be.

And that surely heralds an optimistic future.

Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?
Barack Obama

Geoff Barton
ASCL General Secretary

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