Past, Present and Future

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Autumn Term 1 2022

As the new academic year unfolds, things are likely to be tense, but we’ll continue in our mission to demonstrate what a 21st century trade union looks like and what it does on behalf of its members, says Geoff Barton.

Back when I was a fledgling English teacher, I sometimes needed a quick idea to resurrect a tedious lesson that was dying on its feet. My tried-andtested backup was to challenge pupils of any age to answer this simple question: “What’s the ugliest word or phrase you can think of in the English language?” 

Sometimes they would deliver up predictable words, such as ‘vomit’ or ‘slaughter’ – where I suspect the ugliness comes not from the actual word but the idea it was associated with. At other times, pupils would rifle through a classroom dictionary for obscure humdingers such as ‘pulchritude’ (meaning, unexpectedly, beauty), or ‘crepuscular’ (signifying twilight). 

And I remember one entertaining occasion when a class debated and then put to the vote whether the ugliest word in English was ‘plop’ or ‘gusset’. Quite rightly, in my view, ‘gusset’ won. 

It’s a reminder of how we all have our favourite and least favourite words, of how language is rarely neutral. 

Which brings us, in a characteristically contrived kind of way, to the theme of my Leader column here at the start of a new academic year. And I take as my theme a phrase that I’ll be interested in your response to – is it attractive or ugly? Roll of drums, please – the phrase is ‘ trade union’. 

In this year of unprecedented inflation, energy costs and public sector wage shrinkage, you can be sure that trade unions are going to feature even more in the news. 

Here at ASCL we are a trade union and a professional association. The latter part means us aiming to influence government and other agencies to get the kind of policies in place that will support our members and benefit young people. 

Being a professional association enables us to do what think tanks and corporate organisations can’t do – to provide you with relevant, up-to-the-minute information and professional learning that is led by people doing the kind of role you are doing now or the kind of job you may be about to step into. 

This is important and empowering work – for our members, by our members. But we also know from the hundreds of calls that we get to our Hotline, and all the conversations held with our member support colleagues, that our role as a trade union is essential. 

This is where we support you when someone brings a grievance against you. It’s where we deploy our in-house legal team if accusations of wrongdoing are made against you in person or online. It’s where we aspire to make sure that in one of the most high-stakes and vulnerable roles there is – educational leadership – we can provide the kind of collective solidarity without which you would feel abandoned. 

So, we are proud to be your professional association and proud to be a politically independent trade union that is there to support you when you most need us. 

And we know that as the new educational year unfolds, things are likely to turn ugly – not just the language but the context in which we work. That is why we continue in our mission to demonstrate what a 21st century trade union looks like and what it does on behalf of its members. 

In brief, here are three things you can expect to see us doing more of in the year ahead: 

1. Speaking beyond the echo chamber
This is going to be a year when we will need to listen more closely than ever to what you are saying to us. Remember that ASCL has a very broad-based membership. Some of you are in Wales, Northern Ireland or the Isle of Man, or the Channel Islands, England or overseas. So how do you think we should respond to the respective recommendations about the pay of teachers or of leaders? Where funding is inadequate and falling, what steps would you be prepared to take to make the case more loudly to our elected politicians? 

Those are essential questions. But your responses will then need us to explain them to the wider public, to parents and employers, outlining what we believe and stand for – especially in the run-up to the next general election when this engagement beyond the educational echo chamber becomes ever more important. 

2. Emphasising the importance of place
I mentioned above various parts of the UK. In the coming year, watch how we’ll aim to build more powerfully our regional representation. We know that the issues you are facing in Wigan, Guernsey, Swansea or Derry, are often the same but sometimes different. 

We want ASCL to represent your local concerns in a more granular way. So, our evolution to becoming a genuinely 21st century trade union will use digital technology to bring together our local representatives, our regional and field officers, or employer engagement experts, so that we better customise what we do across the UK to what you need from us in your patch.

3. Putting ASCL in your pocket
Many of you send us appreciative feedback on our newsletters and on Leader magazine. But we also know that there’s a growing strand of the membership who want a different form of communication. 

That’s why we’ve introduced the video briefings, the podcasts, the webinars. And next, our new ASCL app will take us into new territory. As an important education story breaks, we will push it your way. If there’s an issue that’s brewing, we’ll want you to hear it first from us. If our President and I have got a meeting with a minister or official and need a quick sense-check of your opinions, the new ASCL app will allow us to do it. 

All of which is part of ASCL’s journey to keep evolving to become a true 21st century trade union – listening to you, representing you, supporting you in periods of adversity and harnessing your ideas and insights to argue for a better education system. 

So, a new education year begins. There’s much to do. And while of course it may occasionally get ugly, there’s much uplifting work to be done. Best wishes for the year ahead. 

Keep an eye on your inbox or visit for more information on how you can access the new ASCL app. 

Geoff Barton
ASCL General Secretary

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