Geoff Barton's speech to ASCL Annual Conference 2020

Geoff Barton, ASCL General Secretary, addresses the audience at ASCL Annual Conference 2020 in Birmingham
These are strange times.

Whether it’s in our politics, in our public health, in the unnerving patterns of climate change, in the coarsening way people often seem to talk to each other, both in the real world and in that clanging echo chamber called social media – these are indeed strange times.

All the more reason, then, to pay tribute to you, the leaders of our schools and colleges, for you are the gatekeepers, the guardians, the role models, for our nation’s children and young people. And you’ve never been more needed.

Whilst we may fixate day-to-day on arcane debates about progress measures (using language unfathomable to most of our parents), or lose sleep about those perennial issues of funding and recruitment, or question the heap of unrealistic expectations on us to sort out far too many of society’s own deep-rooted problems, we nevertheless share a deeper moral responsibility in our leadership.

And nowhere has that leadership – your leadership – been better demonstrated than in these past few weeks. Amid so many swirling headlines, the language of ‘crisis’, ‘pandemic’ and previously unknown phrases like ‘self-isolation’, we’ve seen education’s leaders exude a calm, measured response whilst translating national guidance into appropriate, proportionate action on behalf of their pupils, staff and communities.

You have set the tone and demonstrated once again what cool-headed, rational leadership looks like in practice.

In these strange times, amid anxiety and confusion, the unnerving sense of a society losing its sense of self, you’re still here, responsible for helping the next generation of children and young people to step up, to take their place as well-educated, well-informed, ethical young adults ready to navigate their way through this complex world.

In doing so, you are shaping our future citizens and our future leaders. They look to you. For, as Franklin D Roosevelt taught us: ‘The real safeguard of democracy is education.”

And we know what parents know: that education means far more than performance measures, phonics tests, and exam results.

The writer David Brookes reminds us of the German word ‘bildung’.  It doesn’t have an English equivalent but it means the complete moral, emotional, intellectual and civic development of a person.

Brookes says of this principle, which has underpinned so much Scandinavian education: “If people were going to be able to handle and contribute to an emerging industrial society, they would need more complex inner lives”.

‘Bildung’ is about viewing education as consisting of far more than things easily measured. It’s seeing our schools as places where the older generation passes on knowledge, develops skills, and deliberately cultivates the values and attributes that the next generation will need.

Now, as an organisation you’ll know what ASCL stands for: ‘Speaking on behalf of members; acting on behalf of children and young people’. And in my speech today I want to talk about how we’ve tried to enact that mission in the year that’s gone, and how we’ll aim to do so in the year ahead.

So, let’s begin by reviewing the past year – what we’ve done as an association and how we’ve tried to heed the great Maya Angelou’s wise words – “Don’t bring negative to my door” – proposing solutions rather than just sniping from the sidelines.

Then, more importantly, I want to suggest that this is a moment we must seize when we take our education system - recognising that it is good but not yet good enough - and set out the solutions for where to go from here.

What needs to be done to ensure that the things that work for our own children are made to work for every child, irrespective of background, many of them living in communities which feel left behind and disenfranchised?

As the economic historian RH Tawney put it, “What a wise parent would wish for their children, the state should wish for all its children.”

So, what do we wish for all our children in a world of convulsive change and shifting expectations? Is the experience we currently provide preparing them to be genuine lifelong learners, ready to train and retrain, to embrace learning as an essential human skill, to help them then to proceed in life with decency and open-mindedness, resilience and critical thinking, kindness and compassion?

Because the future’s going to need more of these things.  And now surely is the time to be asking how we achieve it.

That’s partly because there’s an increasing momentum building with the realisation that, in education policy terms, more of the same is simply going to deliver more of the same. It’s time to end this era of managerialism.

And partly because a new government, with a thumping majority, with new constituencies, has the opportunity to work with school and college leaders, the people leading our system, to identify what are the game-changer policies, the three or four big ticket ideas that would move England’s education provision from good to world class.

And it’s also an opportunity to decide what it’s time to stop doing – dispensing with the marginal stuff, the distractions, the policy clutter that stops us focusing on what truly matters.

So, first: to the year that’s gone.

One year ago, our conference highlighted disturbing accounts from so many leaders about the way poverty was blighting the lives of many children – children who were turning up to school after nights sleeping on unfamiliar sofas at friends’ and relatives’ houses, and where the first job of teachers and other staff was to give them breakfast.

We heard of schools providing clothing, of helping parents to access food banks, of going way beyond what we might expect schools in a civilized society to have to do.

It was a mirror held up to the impact of austerity and of changes to the benefits system that frankly should shame us all.

After conference, I went to Blackpool and visited schools where I saw first-hand how children’s fragmented home lives were being transformed through orderly school routines into an emerging dignity of achievement. I saw the commitment of staff in helping those children to read, to express themselves with new words, to learn new things, to look to bigger horizons.
Also at conference last year we launched our report, ‘The True Cost of Education’. It took the calmly dispassionate approach of asking a simple question: what does it cost to educate a child?

We did the maths. We used the Department for Education’s own funding methodology and we made some basic assumptions. What if we wanted every child to be taught by a qualified teacher? What if we wanted each one to be in a class size no larger than thirty?

Many people were taken aback that these assumptions weren’t already the system’s norm.

That report – ‘The True Cost of Education’ – formed the basis of our work with a group of education partners – other trade unions, parents’ organisations, the f40 group - to build a more forensic case about the impact of school cuts.

And after months of platitudinous denials, it was good that the government itself recognised that more money was needed for schools, culminating in the announcement of an additional £7.1 billion over the next three years.

We have publicly and loudly welcomed this commitment. But we know from our ‘True Cost’ report that it won’t be enough to make amends for almost a decade of cuts. And we know that the financial challenges in post-16 education and special needs provision are particularly sharp. Thus the campaign on funding must continue.

Similarly, last year, based on members’ feedback, we gave the association’s broad support to the direction of travel of Ofsted with its new inspection framework. Over many years, proud predecessors of mine have articulated the need to move to intelligent accountability, in which the things we are judged against are sensible, proportionate and fair.

We argued that inspection teams should chiefly consist of people who are serving school and college leaders. We argued that previous inspection frameworks had largely fixated on externally-held data and therefore didn’t provide parents with a genuinely distinctive, illuminating, external mirror held up to what was happening in a school.

As I had said to the lead inspector who led an inspection when I was headteacher In Suffolk, where it felt as if the only thing that mattered was the data: “You might as well have stayed at home and phoned this report in”.

We believe that the new inspection framework has the potential to liberate leaders to have a professional dialogue about what matters – the stuff of education. But we know that there are risks involved in making judgements around something inherently subjective. Such a change to the inspection framework was always going to be accompanied by some turbulence.

But what’s the view of our members? We asked them in a recent survey, and here’s what they said:

Around three-quarters think the new framework is an improvement on previous frameworks. That’s positive news for Ofsted and for the profession.

It is not necessarily the job of a regulator to seek the approval of those it regulates. We recognise that. But for any regulatory system to be successful there has to be a certain level of professional agreement about the validity of that system.

And we’ve seen too little of that in the past. This is a rare moment of at least partial unanimity. Amanda Spielman and her team deserve credit for that.

But our survey also shows that Ofsted has created the perception that it favours a specific curriculum model – a two-year key stage 4 – and that those who don’t toe the line are likely to be downgraded.

Now, Ofsted denies that. But the perception persists. And while to those outside education this might sound like a nerdily technical argument, we know that this is the sort of thing that makes or breaks careers. School leaders who proudly and successfully run a three-year key stage 4 suddenly feel under threat.

And in challenging schools where they run a three-year programme to give struggling pupils the best possible chance of leaving with good GCSEs, they find Ofsted’s supposed fixation on this issue incomprehensible.

The great shame is that this one topic risks overshadowing the generally positive reception of the new framework.

So our message to Ofsted is this. You have to grasp this issue, and provide schools with greater clarity, reassurance and consistency. We have to know exactly where we stand.

Our member survey also reveals that deep misgivings remain about the inspection system in general, aside from the new framework. In summary, they are these:
  • Graded judgements are crude and stigmatising. Labelling a school as ‘inadequate’ is not smart. It is counter-productive.
  • Ofsted inspections remain inconsistent. Many leaders feel it is the luck of the draw. The verdict feels as if it depends more on the inspection team than the framework.
  • Nowhere near enough recognition is given to the context of schools and colleges which are doing great work in relentlessly challenging circumstances.
  • And, finally, the tone of inspections too often feels combative rather than supportive. As one of our survey respondents puts it: “what we need is ‘less big brother is watching you; more big brother wants to help you’”.
So, these findings give us a clear objective over the coming year. Because if we could improve these areas of inspection, it would be a great deal better for our schools, our colleges, our children and, we would argue, for Ofsted too.

Sean Harford, National Director for Education at Ofsted, will take our members’ concerns head-on this afternoon. We are grateful, and will listen with close interest.

Then last year was the year when ASCL’s ground-breaking work on ethical leadership began to see principles turned into practice. We don’t take the credit for that.

It goes to the inspirational chair of our ethical leadership commission, Carolyn Roberts, and Emma Knights of the National Governance Association, for their tireless work in bringing on board schools as ethical pathfinders, and convening a summit in London which showed that it is the profession itself which is setting the highest professional standards.

And then there’s the ‘forgotten third’ – the young people who every year fall short of achieving a coveted grade 4 in GCSE English and maths, not through any accident, but because it is baked into the exam system by the mechanism of ‘comparable outcomes’.

Last year, our commission on the forgotten third highlighted the plight of these young people and proposed a solution – a passport in English, and in time in maths, which supports students in developing these vital skills rather than pushing them over a cliff edge of perceived ‘failure’.

We have to do better for these young people – and our commission, led by the inimitable Roy Blatchford, has pointed the way.

ASCL is determined to build further on that work. To show that we – as a trade union and professional association – have higher aspirations for our education system, for its teachers and young people, than the government does, with qualifications that will help to develop a post-Brexit workforce with the essential knowledge and skills they need to be effective citizens.

We simply can’t accept the collateral damage of the forgotten third.

Nor do we accept that after more than six years of early years and primary education, some four days of SATs tests is an appropriate way to judge children, teachers, heads and schools.  Nor is it right then to send letters home saying whether pupils have or haven’t met a national ‘expected standard’.

We don’t accept that Progress 8 – better though it is than the old measure of GCSE attainment – is the finished article on school accountability. For too many schools it still feels like a zero-sum game whereby for me to do well, you have to do badly.

We don’t accept that current accountability measures are fair or proportionate. Indeed, they make it harder to recruit and retain the most talented staff in precisely the schools, colleges and communities that need such people most.

So what do we propose to do about all of this?

Today, we launch a call for evidence for our new blueprint for a fairer education system.

By any measure ours is a good education system. If you come from a middle class home, and you go to a popular local school, the chances are that you will do well.

But it doesn’t work well for all children. Many of these come from disadvantaged homes in communities which feel left-behind and marginalised.

This cannot be right.

So our blueprint for a fairer education system is about them, about how we can improve their prospects. We’ll articulate what needs to happen to achieve a truly world class system.

Our blueprint will think about how we do that - how we make working in challenging schools a badge of honour rather than a tightrope act above an unforgiving accountability bearpit; how we improve a teacher supply line which is broken at both ends with too few entering the profession and too many leaving it prematurely; and how we make the accountability system supportive rather than punitive and counter-productive.

This is not just about education, of course. Far too many children from austerity-ravaged communities arrive at school in no fit to state to learn, hungry and poorly clothed. For these pupils, schools have become a fourth emergency service, running food banks, serving breakfasts, providing clothes.

We cannot possibly achieve an equitable society when schools are left to fill the gaps in a society which is letting down these children.

We recognise that these issues have no quick fixes. But let’s not assume that there aren’t some immediate steps that could be taken – by both government and the profession - to deliver the gear-change in education we crave.

Let’s start with government.

Government could agree to immediately stop using the unhelpful descriptors of a GCSE grade 4 as a ‘standard pass’ and a grade 5 as a ‘strong pass’. Where does this leave those who achieve grades 1, 2, and 3? A grade is a grade. Let’s celebrate achievement more broadly.

And government should stop insisting that those annual letters are sent home to the parents of Year 6 pupils with labels about whether or not their children have reached the ‘expected standard’ in their SATs.

It could do more to address our national double-think over academic and technical education – demonstrating parity of esteem by placing greater value on vocational learning before the age of 16, and by retaining and celebrating the applied general qualifications that are taken and valued by so many young people in post-16 education.

Government could abandon the obsession with EBacc, and ditch the ordeal of mandatory resits in GCSE English and maths. It could reform GCSE English to make it a qualification in practical, applicable, real-world English, rather than a watered-down form of English Literature.

It could reform school performance tables, so that instead of pitching school A against school B, it provides a broader range of information – a dashboard – which incentivises partnership working, recognising groups of leaders who are ensuring that our most vulnerable young people remain in learning rather than being excluded or off-rolled.

Government could stop thinking that something as complex as a school or college can be reduced to a single inspection grade. Let’s give parents high quality information; but let’s stop the misguided, simplistic, punitive oversimplification of reducing schools and colleges to a number, to a label.

How hard can any of that be for a government with such a majority?

And then, finally, there’s the profession. Us. There are things we could do for which we frankly don’t need anyone’s permission.

We could stop seeing data as something done to us, and instead use data to learn from one another. To explore, for example, how children in your school in a similar context to mine are doing better in history, and then explore how we can use those insights to improve results for our pupils, to help our teachers develop their teaching.

We could do that now – and ASCL’s Open Data project is helping groups of schools to work together to do precisely that.

We could pave the way for reform of performance tables. The next time that they are released, we could publish, alongside national statistics, our own local information about the other things we value – the sporting activities, arts, residentials, and other extra-curricular provision across our schools.

We could demonstrate that we also value the breadth of experience that most parents want for their children, and which has been such a proud part of our educational tradition.

Finally, there’s something else that we could do. We could start to go a bit easier on ourselves. Because for all the challenges I have outlined today, the problems and barriers, ours is a good education system.

Our schools and colleges do a great job. Our leadership – that’s you - is internationally admired and envied. You do an extraordinary job with characteristic, even embarrassed, understatement.

At ASCL, we hear all too often of how leaders feel ground down and demoralised by pressures which so often feel remorseless. We understand this.

But I hope that this conference  - even in these strange times – is giving you the opportunity to step away briefly from all of that, to take renewed confidence in how we are doing as a profession, and preparing you to go back to your school, your college, your alternative provision or your special school, refreshed for the next stage in taking our nation from good to great.

Because these strange times might just prove something of a turning-point.

In his poem ‘Come to the Edge’, the writer Christopher Logue captures that moment when hesitation becomes boldness, when anxiety becomes self-confidence:

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It's too high!
And they came,
and he pushed,
And they flew.

Enough hesitation. It’s time for us to fly.