By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders
Welcome to the end of another week. And even if your school or college hasn’t quite broken up yet for the summer break, I hope it’s feeling for you as if the end is nigh.
At the end of another punishing and wearying year, if you’re anything like me, you’ll need to re-learn the art of relaxation. As the partner of one seasoned school leader said to me recently: “It’s not until about five days into the holiday that I get my husband back”.
That’s how long it can take some of us to finally step from the coiled-up spring mode of term-time and reacquaint our bodies and minds with the ability to switch off.
The first part of too many of my own summer holidays were spent overthinking what I’d done over the past year, or more often things I’d not done, or even more often, things I’d not done very well. Then I’d find myself thinking and over-thinking, replaying events and conversations, and too often catastrophising what the year ahead might contain.
Finally, I came to accept that this was all part of my personal leadership DNA. I realised that some obsessive mental processing was a prerequisite at the start of the holidays, if I was to be able to get some genuine relaxation for the rest of it.
What all that fretting can do, is obscure the bigger picture of what we may have achieved in the year that’s gone. Certainly, many of ASCL’s members have been so mired in operational matters, dealing with ongoing Covid issues and the uncertainties arising from it, that our perspective can be blurred.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been out and about - visiting schools and colleges in Northern Ireland, Yorkshire, the South West; meetings groups of leaders in South Wales, London and Cambridgeshire; listening to members, meeting staff teams, having conversations with young people.
And what I see isn’t merely operational. Indeed, it’s anything but.
I have been constantly reminded of the deep humanity of our education establishments – of the way you put people at the heart of what you do.
I watched a group of sixth form students passionately debating the future of exams. I met a young man who had been excluded from another school because his behaviour was deemed too bad and here he was keenly showing me around his new school’s garden, naming plants, exuding pride in the fresh start he’d been given.
I listened to a group of middle leaders speaking with genuine optimism about the curriculum development work they were working on together. Elsewhere, a college leadership team proudly displayed the extraordinarily ambitious work they were doing to train scaffolders, plumbers, aeronautical engineers and future HGV drivers, and those learners, in turn, talking with pride in the skills they were developing.
All of this is a sign of an education system which, on your watch, is doing precisely what it should be doing - unleashing the potential of children and young people and giving development opportunities to the next generation of school and college leaders.
That’s what I’ve seen in the last month alone. It’s the stuff that you routinely do.
And it feels especially relevant to me to be sitting writing this today. Because here at Barton Towers, we are entertaining Roy Samson - the English teacher who taught me when I was a shy and gawky 11 year-old back at Walton Comprehensive School in 1974.
It was Mr Samson who taught me how to spell the word ‘necessary’ using a mnemonic that I still use: ‘never eat chips; eat sausage sandwiches and raspberry yoghurt’. It was he who introduced me as hesitant sixth former to Shakespeare, Dickens and Graham Green. It was he who made me abandon my plans to become a local radio DJ and decide, instead, that I wanted to go and study English, and then to become a teacher of English like him.
We’ve all got Mr Samsons in our pasts - the teachers who somehow wove a special kind of magic, opening our eyes to worlds of knowledge - in my case stories and characters - that we didn’t know existed.
And it’s not just that we all have teachers like that who have influenced us. The reality also - confirmed to me by all the people I’ve met over these past few weeks on the road - is seeing the people you have influenced, the young people whose confidence you’re helping to build, the future leaders developing across your organisation, the various people whose lives you’ve touched and made richer.
This is the imperceptible, unfathomable reality of what great leaders do. Your influence is often imperceptible, and you may be too consumed by busyness or worry to notice quite what you’re achieving.
But because of what you’re doing, day in and day out, those people are out there. And their lives have been enhanced because of the quiet but determined leadership you show.
At a time when public service in our country has been dragged into disrepute by politicians, I’ve been in the privileged position of seeing what ethical, principled leadership looks like. It’s what I’ve seen in every school and college I’ve visited. It’s what I see when I look to you.
Now – make sure you have a well-earned break. And thank you.
Geoff Barton is the General Secretary of ASCL.