A rare privilege

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Autumn Term 1 2021

Inspired by leaders’ determination to do their absolute best for children during the pandemic, Pepe Di’Iasio has chosen ‘Ambitious Leadership’ as the theme for his presidential year at ASCL.

I began my teaching career in Doncaster, moved into leadership roles in Nottinghamshire, then Sheffield, and became the Headteacher of Wales High School in Rotherham in 2012.

Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to work with a school in special measures as an executive head and, more recently, was seconded to the role of assistant director of education with Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council. Both have provided me with incredible learning opportunities and a valuable insight into the world beyond the headship of a single school.

Growing up in a working-class family where my mother was a school cleaner and my father was a waiter, I was always taught to value education and ‘doing well at school’.

Making the most of my chances in education was at the heart of our home and seen as the vehicle to a ‘better job’, wider choice and more opportunities for my future. As a result of this ethos, I grew up with a love of everything at school. As Headteacher at Wales, I have tried to embed this ethos in our school and all that we do; I want our students to enjoy the same opportunities that I was lucky to have and experience the same passion for learning I still have to this day.

The opportunity to educate other people’s children is a rare privilege, bringing with it a huge responsibility to provide the best all-round education possible as we aim to prepare young people for happiness and success in their adult lives.

I joined ASCL when my then headteacher used to send us updates from the latest news from ASCL policy leads. I soon realised it was the voice for school and college leaders and the key organisation for advice, support and first-rate professional development – certainly something I wanted to be part of.

An incredibly powerful voice
It was then that I grasped what I believe is one of ASCL’s most important features: we are a member-led organisation. Our tagline encapsulates it precisely: ASCL speaks on behalf of members and acts on behalf of children and young people. The fact we represent more than 21,000 school, college and trust leaders gives us an incredibly powerful voice, and a viewpoint that is highly respected as authentic and authoritative.

I quickly decided that I wanted to play a greater part in ASCL, so I stood for election to Council then became chair of the influential Equalities, Inclusion and Ethics Committee. Two years later I successfully stood as vice president before being elected President last year.

It is fair to say that my last year as vice president has been incredibly challenging and ASCL has been thrust on to the front page and screen of every news outlet. We have become the go-to organisation for sensible, safe and sage advice at a time when colleagues needed us more than ever.

More than our metrics
Something else has happened during this period, too: the Covid pandemic has shown the country that schools and colleges are so much more than our metrics, and are at the very heart of their communities. In great schools and colleges, it is equally about what young people can learn from beyond their classrooms, as well as in them.

As the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”

Over the last 18 months, we have seen leaders in education rise to the challenge as civic leaders of their communities. Parents, families and young people alike have looked to their school and college leaders for a steer and a calm sense of authority in the most turbulent of times.

We have also seen throughout this period that it is our school and college leaders who have shown greater ambition for our young people than our political leaders; it has been our education leaders who not only set the bar for what is achievable but raised that bar so that many of our younger generation are able to look back with a real sense of pride in their achievements and not dwell for too long on what might have been.

It is for this reason that I have decided that the theme for my presidential year will be ‘Ambitious Leadership’.

Hold leaders to account
Politicians have accepted that young people need to be given priority and that work needs to be done to help young people recover from the lockdowns since last year. Clearly, one of my key responsibilities as President will be to hold our political leaders to account, ensure they live up to the rhetoric and provide the resources to make the recovery for young people possible.

I am proud to have had the opportunity to take a lead role in the curation of our blueprint, A Great Education for Every Child: The ASCL blueprint for a fairer education system, which will set out the ASCL vision for ensuring a high-performing education system in which all young people can be successful. You can read more about the blueprint in the article by Director of Policy Julie McCulloch on page 16 and hear more about it at our Autumn Leadership Conferences. We will also be ensuring that our politicians hear and understand our vision at the party conferences in autumn.

Being President of ASCL is one of the proudest moments of my career. Having the opportunity to represent more than 21,000 school and college leaders and provide a voice to help shape the educational agenda at such a crucial moment, is an honour and a privilege and I will endeavour to ensure that I not only speak on behalf of our members but also act on behalf of our young people.

Pepe Di’Iasio
Headteacher of Wales High School, Rotherham, and ASCL President 2021/22

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