Reasons to be positive about education

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Geoff Barton, general secretary, Association of School and College Leaders
Well done Geoff. Lifts my spirits to read something very positive and affirming.

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While UK education does face important challenges, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful about our schools…

The Easter holidays may already seem like a long-distant memory, but I hope that you enjoyed them and found some time to relax and refresh. I say this conscious of the bleak headlines of recent weeks about the pressures and challenges faced by teachers in our schools, and the criticism levelled at some multi-academy trusts over issues like the pay of chief executives.

These are important subjects and it is right to air them. But I worry about the extent to which a daily diet of negative headlines affects the public’s perception of our education system in general and our schools in particular. I worry what impact that this perception then has on teacher recruitment (at a time when we so urgently need more teachers) and on the morale of staff, parents and pupils.

In my first 12 months as general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, I have noticed a disconnect between the impression I gain from reading about our education system to what I see when I visit our members in our schools.

Here at ASCL, we subscribe to a daily digest of education news. It drops into my inbox at some point between 6 and 6:30 each morning and, frankly, it is generally a depressing read. It is a compendium of controversies and criticisms, a collection of things that have gone wrong.

But when I go into schools I see a system that works pretty well and which is run by dedicated and remarkable leaders and teachers. There are certainly massive challenges – most notably the lack of sufficient funding, teacher shortages and a draconian accountability system. But these are outweighed by the positives.

So how to account for this apparent contradiction? To be clear, I am not having a go at the media. I’m well aware that it is the nature of news to focus on what goes wrong, rather than what goes right. And journalists report what they are told by the array of politicians, academics, think-tanks and unions that stalk the education landscape.

Certainly, there are editorial decisions over headlines and angles, and we may not always like those decisions. But controversy is a staple of the news agenda and we shouldn’t be surprised that controversial reports and statements generate such headlines.

But what this means, of course, is that we often see only one side of the education system. We do not see all the good news about the successes and achievements, the sports days and concerts, the attention to individual needs, the sense of community, the sheer fun and pride that continues to be a defining feature of our schools and colleges, so often admired by international visitors.

To redress the balance then let me pick out just two reasons to be cheerful about our education system which have cropped up in reports in the past month.

The first of these is a finding in a report by the National Foundation for Educational Research which compares the working hours and earnings of teachers with those of nurses and police officers. There is much of concern in this report, particularly over workload and the extent to which teachers’ average hourly pay has decreased since 2009/10 in real terms.

But I was struck by the fact that despite these factors, 78 per cent of teachers say they are satisfied with their jobs. What that suggests to me is that teachers feel a great sense of fulfilment from the job itself – the act of helping young people to learn, achieve and overcome obstacles.

We shouldn’t take that level of satisfaction for granted. We have to do more to tackle workload and the government must fund a decent pay increase. But it is a positive affirmation of the non-monetary rewards of our profession.

And the second reason to be cheerful shows us that we are right to be proud of our schools.

The Varkey Foundation’s Global Parents’ Survey interviewed parents across 29 countries. It found that British parents are among the most positive surveyed about the quality of teaching at their child’s school – 87 per cent rating it as very good or fairly good. And 67 per cent of British parents say their child’s school is preparing them well for the world of 2030 and beyond – higher than Germany (57 per cent), Italy (52 per cent), France (47 per cent), and tied with Spain.

I offer these examples to illustrate the fact that there is much to celebrate in education. Organisations like ASCL have a role to play in doing so and constructing a more positive narrative.

We owe it to ourselves, to our staff, parents and communities, to tell a better story. I hope also that they provide some antidote to all that doom and gloom and lift your spirits as you embark upon the summer term. Our very best wishes for the weeks ahead.

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

Further information

www.ascl.org.uk


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Well done Geoff. Lifts my spirits to read something very positive and affirming.
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