A cause for hope

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

"Hope begins in the dark," says the writer Anne Lamott.

Let’s hope so, because there’s far too much darkness swirling around us at the moment. So, instead of writing about the heartbreaking events unfolding in Ukraine, referencing the many issues you are currently dealing with, or commenting further on Gavin Williamson’s unexpected knighthood, I’ll focus on hope.

Because next week, more than a thousand people will join us in Birmingham for our Annual Conference. It’s the first time we’ll be back together in person in two years. 

And whether you’re joining us in person, or following the debates via social media, we think it will be quite a moment. Because just as Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are setting new paths for their respective education systems, on Friday we’ll hear from the Secretary of State for Education in England about where the government believes education should go from here.

We’ve got an array of people hosting workshops, delivering speeches, and speaking on panels. All have been chosen for the significant roles they have in education. We expect some will say things we agree with; some will provoke controversy.

ASCL’s conference is always like that. But this year of all years – with democracy feeling so palpably under attack – those principles of free speech, those protocols of civilised disagreement, that space safely to agree or disagree have never felt so precious.

And underpinning all of it will be the theme of ‘ambitious leadership’. What does it look like in practice? How do we take a good education system and make it genuinely world class? 

Over the past two years of the pandemic, we have seen the education sector at its tireless, principled best. Schools, colleges and trusts have risen to innumerable challenges – developing remote education provision virtually overnight, handling a plethora of completely unfamiliar public health tasks, getting food out to disadvantaged families, checking up on the welfare of vulnerable children in their homes. They’ve filled in the gaps left by a government which has often felt out of touch and hopelessly muddled.

Many people – politicians, journalists, the public at large – have seen for themselves the extent to which education and the work of schools and colleges extends far beyond the classroom. And all of that gives us – and the government – a moment both of opportunity and of challenge.

Because for all the merits of our education system, there is a persistent and intractable problem. It works pretty well for about two thirds of our children and young people, but not so well for the number that we have described as the ‘forgotten third.’ Many of these young people are disadvantaged, many of them have special educational needs. And for many of them their life chances are predetermined by the poverty in which they live.

This is not good enough. It must change. And simply doing more of the same – more targets, more accountability, more mechanistic fiddling at the edges – is simply going to produce more of the same.

It is time to be more ambitious – for teaching as a profession, for our pedagogy, for the curriculum and our exam system. And while we need from the government a fresh approach, more trust and sufficient resources, it is also up to us as leaders to set the agenda.

We’ve been doing that in our Blueprint for a Fairer Education System, and it is what we’ll be doing too next Friday and Saturday in keynote speeches, in our workshops, and perhaps most importantly, in all those conversations which take place face-to-face, in the real world, between colleagues from across the country, which we have missed so much.

It is going to take ambitious leadership to change the fortunes of that forgotten third. But this is a profession more than capable of pointing the way. And that is a cause for hope.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary.
Posted: 04/03/2022 12:46:25