Gladiators ready!

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Autumn Term 1 2021

As Geoff Barton welcomes leaders back to the arena – that is schools and colleges – he applauds them for stepping up over the last 18 months to deal with the Covid crisis.

A lifetime ago, I worked with a colleague who – because of a complicated home life – hadn’t been able to take his family on a proper holiday for many years.

As we chatted together, he announced that that was about to change. He’d booked an apartment on a Greek island for the whole family for two long, shimmering weeks.

At the end of the summer, back on the corridors as the new term began, I asked him how the holiday had gone. He paused then described his family’s excitement on arrival at the resort. The kids explored the villa, while my colleague climbed into his new swimming trunks and stepped out onto the poolside balcony.

Suddenly, a voice from the apartment next door called out: “Hello there, Mr Jackson. Fancy seeing you here. Oh, I do like your trunks.”

It seems one of the school’s dinner ladies and her family were staying in the apartment next door. Any dreams of anonymity were shattered. Mr Jackson faked a cheery greeting, waved half-heartedly and retreated from the sunshine to unearth a beach towel.

It’s a reminder of how much we invest in the concept of holidays.

And I’m hoping that in a summer when getting away far beyond UK shores was problematic, you at least got something of a mental, if not physical, escape after the extraordinary year you’ve been through. I hope you found a way of switching off.

The arena
But now you’re back in your school, your college, your pupil referral unit (PRU), or whichever institution you’re part of, wherever you are in the UK, as another new term winds into gear.

Apple’s Chief Executive, Tim Cook, once said about leadership: “The sidelines are not where you want to live your life. The world needs you in the arena.”

So, welcome home from the sidelines. You’re back in the arena. It’s where you have spent the last 18 months or so. And on many of those never-ending days, your head will have been spinning as you tried to predict which gate the next lion was going to be unleashed from.

And at the risk of over pushing my metaphor, you have been one of the nation’s gladiators.

All eyes were upon you – from your young people, parents, staff and communities who looked to you and your leadership team for steadfast, calm leadership, the sense in a bewilderingly different world that you could bring clarity, reassurance and courage when so many appeared merely to be quacking slogans, blaming others and making too many of us feel on the back foot.

Since the start of the Covid months, you were anywhere other than on the sidelines, even if on some occasions you wished you had been.

But now you are well and truly re-rooted in that arena.

Unleashing your professionalism
So, what’s in store in the year ahead – for the leadership team you are part of, and for the staff and communities who look to you?

I’m writing this on the day that A level and vocational and technical qualifications results have been published. It’s a Tuesday in mid-August. And the build up to today has been one of willful and tiresome doom-mongering, with lots of sneering at the supposed unreliability of teacher assessment, swirling rumours about threats of legal challenges on grading from parents and a prediction that a second year’s results fiasco was about to be unleashed upon the nation’s young people.

But in truth this results day has been the calmest of my career, both as a school leader and as your General Secretary. And unless something catastrophic happens between me writing this and Leader thudding onto your doormat, it may be that this most unusual of all results seasons proves to be something of a turning-point.

Because what we’ve increasingly seen over the past 18 months is a teaching profession that has quietly and consistently stepped up, earning the respect of the public, the gratitude of many parents and with you, our members, a sense of true community leadership that has resonated across society.

From laptops to free school meals, to online learning, to reinventing your institution for social distancing and on-site testing, to demonstrating that in the UK – as in top performing jurisdictions – teachers can after all be trusted to assess pupils with integrity, you have achieved far more than you may realise.

And, in the process, we’ve seen that types of schools and colleges matter far less than some might have us believe, and that partnerships and trusts and families of schools working with one another and their local authorities have reignited a sense of a moral purpose that is cause for great optimism. Which brings us to the year ahead.

Fight for the future
If, as we hope, we are moving beyond the end of the beginning of the Covid crisis and into the beginning of the end (and remember I started this sentence with ‘if’), then now is the time to shape a bigger agenda.

That’s what our blueprintA Great Education for Every Child: The ASCL blueprint for a fairer education system, is designed to do, as our Director of Policy Julie McCulloch explains on page 16. Our starting point is that we already have a good education system but it isn’t yet good enough because it doesn’t work for too many children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

And that’s what we intend in the coming months to work with you and with government to address – to demonstrate, based on evidence, what needs to happen to make our education system genuinely world-class.

Instinct tells me that as well as craving a sense of educational normality, there’s also an appetite for measured, thoughtful reform. There are of course many think tanks out there who believe the same.

The difference is, ASCL is not a think tank. We are you – leaders with ambition, integrity and with the hopes and dreams of young people at the heart of a deep sense of public service.

This is the year we move out of reactive mode and start making those right changes happen. See you in the arena.

Geoff Barton
ASCL General Secretary

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