Rising above the chaos

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Autumn Term 2 2022

Geoff Barton says that while there’s chaos in the government, ASCL is working to develop solutions on the issues that matter most to members – accountability, fair funding, qualifications, and recruitment and retention.

Here at ASCL, we aren’t a think tank. We're guardians of the nation's children and young people. We're in the corridors, in the classrooms, knowing deeply what works and what doesn't.

I’m writing this article sitting on a train going home from Birmingham to Suffolk. As Birmingham sinks into the horizon behind me, I’m reflecting less on the present and more on the past. In fact, I’m trying to process something that happened less than three hours ago. It was today that our short-lived Prime Minister, Liz Truss, resigned. After six or so tumultuous weeks, it seemed inevitable that she had to go. 

This turbulent time has reminded me of something writer John Gardner said: “History never looks like history when you’re living through it.” 


It means that when I stood to speak to delegates at our latest Autumn Leadership Conference this afternoon, I used a sentence I have never used before:

“You will one day be able to say to your children and your grandchildren that you were here in Birmingham, when diners in the Park Regis restaurant broke into spontaneous and prolonged applause when Liz Truss announced her resignation.” 

Which would be funny if it wasn’t so deeply unfunny. Our Autumn Leadership Conferences, like our conferences in Northern Ireland and Wales, provide the ASCL team with a privileged window into the hopes and fears of school and college leaders across the UK. Our attendance at the annual conference of School Leaders Scotland (SLS) does the same. 

As a delegate, you come along to these events to listen to what our Specialist team has to tell you about inspection, or funding or pay and conditions, and what our Member Support team has to say about pensions or grievance procedures or wellbeing. 

You come along chiefly to listen to us. But we come along most definitely to listen to you. 

We start each conference with a private meeting of ASCL’s Local Representatives (www.ascl.org.uk/localrepresentatives). These people are our eyes and ears; they’re involved in local negotiations with employers, in checking contracts, in sustaining local networks for leaders who can so often feel isolated and fraught. 

Our ASCL Local Representatives are ASCL’s frontline. 

They tell us how things are feeling on the ground, often saying things that help us to provide the support our members need. 

Today, for example, I’ve come away with a bleakly vivid picture of how so many effects of Covid are only starting to surface now. 

We heard about how some young people’s behaviour has become infinitely more challenging, more defiant, more dismissively truculent. We heard too of how the provision of other services – from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) to the role of social workers – has become increasingly elusive and, often, non-existent. 

We heard from one West Midlands head today of how every teaching job he’d advertised in every subject this year had resulted in only one candidate applying, often only after re-advertising the post three times. Apart from in PE, he said, the notion of recruiting from a ‘field’ of applicants has gone. 

There were stories of teaching assistants and catering staff who’ve left to work in supermarkets because the pay’s better, the pressure less relentless. 

And then there was the deputy head who told stories of parents turning up in reception, being abusive, refusing to leave. 

These are all Covid after-effects that so many of you are having to deal with, day in, day out. 

And all this is before we get onto charged issues of funding, pay and the crushing weight of how schools and colleges are held to account via inspection and performance tables. 

So, without doubt, these are tough times for many of our members. You tell us that directly and powerfully and with endless humility. 

Today in Birmingham, delegates laughed hollowly when I shared with them an American proverb: 

“The past is terrible, the present is catastrophic. Thank goodness we don’t have a future.” 

As I say, it would be funny if it wasn’t so deeply unfunny. 

Resilient and optimistic leadership 
Despite all this, and despite the lack of certainty about what the political climate might send our way, what has jumped out at me yet again from our conferences is the resilience and optimism of the people I listened to – of people like you. 

And that’s why I feel in my role that I owe it to you to do two things. First, I want to use your insights, your deep knowledge of the lived reality of working in education, and to share that truth to power. That’s why I keep a collection of anonymised comments and anecdotes that I quote to officials and to ministers, saying, “This is the reality of what life is like.” It’s something our Presidential Trio (www.ascl.org.uk/People) also do from first-hand experience in their meetings with decision-makers. 

So ‘telling them how it is’ is a genuinely essential part of our role in engaging with the government and its agencies. But, more than ever, I’m reminded that there’s something else we must do. That is to paint a picture of what education could look like, to offer up solutions to the power brokers in the spirit of saying, “Minister, you have a good education system. But here’s how you could liberate school and college leaders to make it better.” 

Here at ASCL, we aren’t a think tank. We’re guardians of the nation’s children and young people. We’re there in the corridors, in the classrooms, knowing deeply what works and what doesn’t. 

That’s why ASCL Council (www.ascl.org.uk/council) is doing important work in developing solutions on accountability, fair funding, qualifications and on recruiting and retaining great teachers and leaders. And in doing so, we’re learning from colleagues in all parts of the UK, with all their diverging systems. 

In these turbulent times, it would be easy for us to retreat, to be merely reactive. Instead, you inspire us to retain optimism. As Paul McCartney put it: “Tomorrow may rain, so I’ll follow the sun.” As the train approaches my stop and I reach for my bags, that’s just what I’ll do.

Geoff Barton
ASCL General Secretary

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