We must be bold on behalf of our students

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

When you retire, no-one will thank you for your data analysis skills or effective appraisal management – it is what you do for your children and their families that counts, says Geoff Barton

These are indeed strange times. Just when our nation needs leadership of the highest calibre, we appear to have exactly the opposite.
Instead of vision, we have infighting and grandstanding. When we should be looking outwards, we appear to be looking self-absorbedly inwards. When we should be exuding a confident and principled sense of who we are and where we are going, we instead seem rudderless, drifting, chaotic.

Some years ago I remember Terry Waite, special envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury, saying: “It seems as if the children act as adults and the adults act as children.”

Certainly, as any school or college leader knows – and certainly the teams who look after pastoral care – many of the familiar boundaries have blurred.

In the communities we serve, it is the boundaries between home and school, real-life and social media, being a parent and being a best mate to your children.

If ever our young people needed a sense of what calm, ethical leadership looks like, it’s now. And so, perhaps more than ever, the communities beyond our perimeter fences look to us – the school and college leaders who hold such responsibility for the success of the next generation.

Rarely has community leadership mattered so much – our sense of doing what’s right for the young people in our stewardship, whether or not it counts in performance tables and inspection.

As I say a lot at the conferences I speak at – when I ended 15 years of being a headteacher, no-one gave me a card saying: “Thanks for the way you ran the appraisal system, for the forensic analysis you did of Progress 8 measures.”

Instead, it’s what we distinctively do for the children and their parents in our communities that matters most. I learnt this especially from colleagues in a range of independent schools where they often have laser-like clarity about what their parents want for their children at the school. These leaders know what makes their school distinctive.

That’s why I think we ought to be bolder in doing what we believe is right for our students, and to shrug off external criticism with greater confidence.

Here’s an example. For many years as headteacher, I worked with a pastoral team to help the young people who were becoming disaffected with the traditional curriculum. Every institution has them.

In partnership with a terrific, outward-facing further education college next door, we would select a dozen or so students and – in consultation with their parents – give them a bespoke key stage 4 curriculum that involved two days at the college and the remainder of their week with us in their normal lessons.

It was a tricky curriculum to schedule, of course, because core subjects and a reduced diet of options didn’t fall neatly into three school days. But we managed, year after year, to provide a customised offer that gave those who were drifting to the margins of achievement a curriculum that usually re-ignited their interest and self-esteem.

At college they would do courses they couldn’t choose at school – general or specific vocational qualifications in, say, leisure and tourism, or health and beauty. This was, of course, before the Govean bonfire of the vocational qualifications – an act based on the belief that schools like ours and leaders like me were using vocational qualifications to game the system.

It was nothing of the sort. It was a belief that for some young people, for whom nine years of classroom teaching was stalling in its effectiveness, a change of environment, a different course, different teachers, different teaching styles – that these could restore a sense that the school valued them enough to provide something distinctively different.

That’s what we did. Those young people benefited. They did better, on the whole, in their other subjects because of the distinctiveness of what they did at college.

And it allows us to look ourselves in the mirror, at the ends of our careers, and know that what we did for that small group of students was what they needed to retain them in the school system, to give them a sense of specialness, and to restore their believe that education meant something purposeful to them.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

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