Issue 131 - 2024 Summer term
The story of ASCL reminds us of the frustrations of generations past, but gives us hope for a brighter, better tomorrow says Assistant Headteacher Rich Atterton. 

150 years of wisdom

Rich Atterton
Assistant Headteacher, Chair of the ASCL LGBT+ Leaders’ Network and ASCL DASH (Deputy and Assistant Head) Representative
As I searched the ASCL archives, I was hoping to find some secret wisdom from the past, some key nuggets of information that might make us feel like we weren’t caught in a never-ending cycle of history repeating itself. But the more I read, the more I felt a sense of déjà vu. Over and over again, the words ‘funding’, ‘system structure’, ‘pensions’, ‘curriculum’ and ‘pay’ kept coming up.

The lesson I learned was simple: every generation has had to fight for education in their day.

It was a history of 150 years of leaders battling to improve the schools they led and the children and young people they served. I saw pressure put to bear at national level through expertise and lobbying, but also through the daily grind of turning up every day and ‘making our schools work’.
Writer and artist Mary Anne Radmacher had it right when she said, “Courage doesn't always roar, sometimes it's the quiet voice at the end of the day whispering I will try again tomorrow.”

Profiles in courage
The ASCL archives are littered with those who were willing to take risks, doing what they thought was right, often in the face of conventional wisdom or national consensus, willing to swim against the tide of history.

One such school leader was Robert Cholmeley. He was a key figure in the Assistant Masters’ Association (later the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL)), becoming its president in 1908. When he became headmaster of Owen’s Islington, he joined the Headmasters’ Association, becoming its president in 1923 and then again in 1927. He wrote extensively on women’s suffrage, arguing strongly for political equality.

Robert Cholmeley took reputational risks hosting meetings for Mark Wilks, imprisoned after his wife, Elizabeth Wilks, a medical doctor, refused to pay her taxes. 

His ‘disruptive progressivism’ fortunately didn’t harm his meteoric rise as an influential campaigner for education. He wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power.

In 1916 he joined with the Association of Headmistresses to rebuke the government in The Times, lamenting the “injurious curtailment of expenditure on education”, scolding the government for treating education as a luxury, distinguished from other luxuries as the “easiest of all to economise on”. This refrain would echo down through the ages. We hear it in the McNair Report of 1944, “We have not yet emancipated ourselves from the tradition of educating our children on the cheap.”

As school leaders navigated the transition to comprehensive education, we saw it in what George Whitfield, headmaster of Hampton School in 1967, described as a government “unwilling to pay the price of progress”. He went on to say, “We should like to have a brave new world on the cheap and it looks as If we shall have to learn rather painfully that it is not available on those terms.”

At ASCL’s Annual Conference this year, ASCL President John Camp’s address echoed this refrain, when he said, “Let’s expect – no let’s demand – that government joins us… seeing education, not as a cost, but as an investment.”

Together, we can achieve great things
After the Butler Act was passed in 1944, an estimated 350,000 new teachers were needed to staff the Act’s reforms. A government, with bold plans, and a willingness to see education as an investment rather than a cost, built 6,000 new classrooms in two years. Great things can be achieved with political will and sector support. Additionally, within the first six years of the Act, 53 teacher training colleges had been established, providing 35,000 new teachers and 85,000 ex-service men and women brought into the profession.

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) stated last year's teacher vacancy figures were up 93% on pre-pandemic levels. In 2022, 40,000 teachers left the profession for reasons other than retirement and recruitment targets continue to fall ever short.

In 2010, then headteacher and ASCL president John Fairhurst said, “We want any government that's been legitimately elected to a position of power to listen to us because we can improve their policy." This still holds today, but ASCL has always known when to take the ‘gloves off’, and talking of which, in 1996, general secretary John Sutton told our annual conference in Newcastle, “The attack on comprehensive schools is a lie of which the late Dr Goebbels would have been proud.” And indeed, in 2023, ASCL took the unprecedented step of balloting members for industrial action, with the then general secretary Geoff Barton asking, “If public servants who came into a once great profession on behalf of children and young people, aren’t standing up and fighting for education, who is?” He continued by saying, “Certainly, it seems, no one in the current government.” 

Standing up for education has never been a partisan affair in ASCL. Those who steered the association took fearless stands for what they knew was right regardless of who was in power.

In 1995, as the Labour Party inched ever closer to power, David Blunkett declared to the Secondary Heads Association (SHA) (which later became ASCL) conference, that there would be “no crash spending spree after the next election”. We hear similar things today, but like in 1995, we will not stop putting forward the case for schools and colleges, fighting for a settlement that does more than just keep the lights on. 

We all have to fight – fight like our predecessors did. Fight in the sure and certain hope that with ASCL on our side and 25,000 school and college leaders on the frontline, big things are possible. It has happened before, and it will happen again.

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