Address by ASCL President Rachael Warwick to Annual Conference 2020

ASCL President Rachael Warwick addresses the audience at ASCL Annual Conference 2020 in Birmingham
Good morning and a very warm welcome to ASCL conference 2020.

It has been the privilege of my career to be elected as ASCL President. And it is the privilege of my professional life to be a teacher and school leader.

Because teaching, of course, is not only the profession which creates all other professions, but the profession which shapes and nurtures young people, the next generation, the leaders and the change-makers.

There is no more humbling or noble mission.

So, let me begin by thanking you for the work you do, day-in day-out, in your schools and colleges.

Whatever kind of role you hold, whatever week you have had, I am glad that you have made the time to be here in Birmingham today, especially in such challenging times for us all.

Obviously this conference takes place at a time when we are navigating a national emergency over the coronavirus outbreak. I know that you will all be making contingency plans in your schools to prepare for any disruption in your usual, calm, measured and responsible manner. So I particularly want to thank you today for giving the time to join our conference and for engaging with the many valuable professional conversations that will take place over the next two days.

We have worked hard to ensure that the programme will provide opportunity for you to reflect, engage, be inspired, and I hope that you will leave with a renewed sense of energy and motivation for the work ahead.

The best leaders create simplicity from complexity so this is what I will try to do.

Teaching is a people business and a leadership business. So let’s start by going backwards. Let’s take a moment to remember our ‘why’. The reason we became teachers.

For me, it was 1993. After working in publishing for three years, at 24, I was deeply bored. What I found in teaching was joy. The joy of sharing the subject I loved, English Literature, with young people from diverse backgrounds, packed full of potential. I couldn’t actually believe that anyone would pay me to do this! To work with human potential, that most ancient and fundamental of qualities, the Greek ‘dynitikos’; this is surely the greatest privilege of all.

That was 27 years, nearly three decades, ago. Today, I feel no differently and nor, I sense, do the young people we appoint to teach in our schools and colleges. I recognise the appetite for joy in them. The same instinct for hope, the same green shoots of resilience, and the same passion to drive social mobility.

And yet, now, a third of teachers leave the profession within their first five years of service. The government has missed its secondary teacher trainee targets for the seventh year in a row. This, at a time when we have a bulge of students entering secondary schools. A perfect storm.

Whilst the government’s Early Careers Framework is a good start there is far more to do. We are facing a burgeoning and multilateral recruitment and retention crisis which touches us all, not least school leaders. Government figures show that almost a third of secondary headteachers appointed in 2013, under the age of 50, had left their posts within three years.

It’s our collective responsibility – and I mean school and college leaders, civil servants and government ministers, trade unions and professional associations – to work together to create a culture across the school system which is healthy and sustainable and promotes high standards. A culture in which the whole school community thrives.

That joy that we all feel about teaching has to remain the DNA of our profession and the lifeblood of teachers and leaders through long and fulfilling careers.

We will never be able to pay teachers enough to compensate for a school system which is exhausting, toxic and fractured. Many school leaders won’t choose to work in the disadvantaged communities which most need their talents whilst the stakes are so high.

A cliff-edged accountability system where a poor Ofsted report or set of results can see leaders removed from their posts is not conducive to long-term, sustainable school improvement – or to supporting a family and paying a mortgage. An inadequately funded school system cannot provide the quality of education and pastoral support required to enable all young people to thrive in the 21st century.

So, the question I pose is:

‘How do we build a healthy and sustainable culture across the school system which delivers success for all?’

Culture, ‘the way we do things here’, the holy grail of successful leadership. Notoriously difficult to capture, to bottle, to replicate, because culture is an abstract noun made up of other abstract nouns like trust, integrity, and communication. Whilst it’s impossible to legislate for a healthy culture, it’s more than possible to create the conditions where a positive culture will thrive amongst well-intentioned and well-equipped school leaders.

Firstly, we need to place diversity in all its forms at the heart of positive change.

‘Diverse leadership’ is the theme of this conference and my presidential year. It’s time to shine a light on the power of diversity. ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ and the third of young people in our schools from minority ethnic backgrounds can’t see very many leaders who look like them at the moment. Only 7% of headteachers in primary schools and 9% in secondary schools to be precise.

In secondary, about two thirds of teachers are women but at headship this flips with 61% of headteachers men and only 39% women.

The DfE doesn’t keep any statistics on sexual orientation of school leaders. But we do know that over three quarters of LGBT teachers aren’t ‘out’ at school, and around half don’t feel it’s safe to be out. Fifteen years after the repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which banned the discussion of homosexuality in classrooms, it feels like progress is depressingly slow.

What message does all of this send to young people about who the ‘top jobs’ in any profession are for? How can we ensure that inclusion is built in, not bolted on, in our schools if our leaders don’t represent the diversity in our society?

Moreover,  we know that diverse teams are more creative and make better decisions – indeed this forms the focus of Matthew Syed’s keynote later today. In an increasingly polarised society where shouting into echo chambers on social media has become the fast-food equivalent for debate, it’s time to prioritise the art of thinking differently together.

At ASCL, we are working to put our own house in order. We are using positive action to bring greater diversity to those who represent you at Council, our policy-making body of serving school and college leaders, and we’ve set up an in-house working group to champion equalities within ASCL as an employer organisation.

We’ve reached out to grassroots groups and others who are passionate about diversity. By shining a light on the protected characteristics of race, sex and sexual orientation we hope to bring greater visibility to the other protected characteristics too.

By publishing flexible working case studies and guidance papers on best practice recruitment, the gender pay gap, and inclusive workplace cultures, we are providing tools for school leaders, governors and trustees to encourage a more diverse range of people to step up to leadership. More than this, if we are serious about diversity then we need policy which supports flexible working, sabbaticals and job shares so these become the norm not the exception.

In the words of James Kerr’s Legacy, a book exploring leadership lessons from the success of the New Zealand All Blacks: “Society grows great when old men (and women) plant trees whose shade they will never see.” It’s time for all of us to get planting.

The second ingredient to building a healthy and sustainable culture is that we must review an accountability system which is built on the cliff edge.

The cliff-edge of being one of the 187,000 young people who left school without a standard GCSE pass in English and Maths last year, the Forgotten Third.

The cliff-edge of the performance of your school being reduced to one word by Ofsted, which then determines, domino-like, your reputation, your school’s reputation, student roll, budget and people’s jobs. We need to view policy-making and the regulation of schools through a fresh ethical lens which really considers what education is for and what ‘success’ means.

The government and the inspectorate must work alongside us, in alignment, towards this shared mission. Not as far-fetched as it may seem: in Scotland, government and schools have worked together for the last 12 years developing ‘The Curriculum for Excellence.’ In Wales, the inspectorate has halted inspection of the majority of schools for twelve months to give them time to work on curriculum change. Whilst neither country would claim that its education system is without challenges, there is something here for England to learn.

We measure what we value, so let’s think again about what we do value and what success means for young people. Examination outcomes? Yes. Students’ access to a quality curriculum: ‘the best that has been thought and said’? Yes.

And we also want to grow resilient, healthy young people who have the skills we know they will need in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world: problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, decision making, cognitive flexibility. The ability to distinguish between truth and fake news. These are the skills identified by the World Economic Forum in January 2016 as being essential to the workplace of 2020. That’s us, now. Is there really space in the reformed, knowledge-heavy GCSEs and our carefully sequenced curricula for all of this?

The results of a recent ASCL survey on the future of GCSEs would suggest not. Eighty eight per cent of all respondents believe that GCSEs do not work well for all students and 86% would either scrap GCSEs or retain but reform them.

As well as insufficient focus on the skills needed within industry, respondents cited that the new GCSE specifications are inaccessible to too many young people because of the amount of content which requires significant memorisation. And they are particularly inaccessible to the 15% – or 1.3 million children in England – with special educational needs and disabilities.

Is it really too much to ask that the government look again at GCSEs? That it recognises that the reforms it introduced to deliberately make GCSEs harder have resulted in life becoming even more difficult for the very children who most need our support? Surely, the fact that this is being said by school leaders – the people who deliver these qualifications – should be listened to.

The pressure of a large number of terminal exams and the ignominy of Grades 1-3 are creating young people who exhibit unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety.

Add to this the pernicious potential of social media to attack self-esteem and perpetuate bullying, and the fact that nearly a third of the country’s children grow up in grinding, relentless poverty, and we have another perfect storm.

In 2017, the Mental Health Foundation reported that one in eight children aged 5 – 19 in this country has a mental health disorder, with a huge increase in emotional disorders, including anxiety and depression, over the last ten years.

As people who work in schools every day, we don’t need statistics to tell us that we have a real problem. What we do need is a properly funded education system which acknowledges the fact that schools have become the fourth emergency service and enables us to employ the specialists that we need.

It’s time to re-think the accountability system so that schools are recognised for the work they do to support their most vulnerable young people. To consider a range of measures which take a school’s holistic performance into account and to judge progress across the curriculum over time.

It’s time to review the qualifications we offer, and which we recognise in performance measures, so that all young people have the opportunity to thrive and experience success during their 12 years of compulsory schooling. We must build a compelling case for this kind of intelligent accountability, taking responsibility for the things that we can and must change.

The third ingredient to a health and sustainable culture is that we must take back our professional agency to decide what works best in our schools.

To steal the words of our esteemed keynote speaker, Dylan Wiliam: “Everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere.” Whilst we are rightly evidence-based and outward-looking as a profession, this does not necessarily mean adopting the latest trend from Finland or Estonia. As Professor Alma Harris from Swansea University says: “Policies that are borrowed are like bad fruit – they don’t travel well.”

So, let’s use the evidence-base from our own context to drive policy and practice. This is why our panel tomorrow on reducing the disadvantage gap includes Becky Francis from the Education Endowment Foundation, Natalie Perera from Education Policy Institute, and Jonathan Simons from Public First.

We need to always act in the best interests of children and these must be aligned with inspection judgements and performance measures because we have agreed, as a country, what success means for us. This is the responsibility we accept as school leaders and the responsibility we expect from government. And ‘responsibility’ is deliberately chosen. Whilst accountability assumes we are doing things for other people – responsibility is what we expect from ourselves and others.

So, to recap. This is a vision for an education system which promotes equity and drives sustainable change. Where people are encouraged to become, and choose to remain, teachers and leaders through a culture built on professional agency. A culture which places equality and diversity at its heart. A culture which enables all young people to experience success through an accountability system which measures the right things in the right way.

This is the vision which forms the basis of the call to evidence published today for ASCL’s Blueprint for a Fairer Education System. This will be the companion piece to the first Blueprint for a Self-Improving System which, published in 2015, now forms part of the educational lexicon. I urge you to contribute to the call to evidence so that your voice is heard and, collectively, we define a vision which will shape our actions, as a profession, over the next five years and beyond.

This is a good news story. With a happy ending. It has to be. Because our young people deserve optimism, especially from the people who lead their schools and colleges, and because we need to tell a better story about our profession to inspire others to join us.

Napoleon was right - on this at least – as leaders we must always be ‘dealers in hope’. It’s how we frame the narrative and the stories that we tell about our lives that count. Optimistic people tell themselves hopeful stories and the end of this story is ours to write.

To end at the beginning, let’s go back to our ‘why’, that intensely personal motivation. My grandmother was a dinner lady bringing up three children on one income. My mum left school at 14 to go out to work to support her family. My mum and dad had five pounds between them on their wedding day. But I grew up rich because, as a child, in our family, we had books, as many books as we could read, and the importance of education was the bedrock of family life. As we became more affluent, my dad would take me to the RSC for my birthday and snore through productions of King Lear, Macbeth and Othello as I watched, enrapt.

I know that many of you have similar stories to tell. Many of us are the grateful products of social mobility. So please don’t mistake me: everything I have said today is in the interests of high standards, educational excellence and also a celebration of our diversity and common humanity. There is no contradiction between these things.

I have nothing but respect for you and the work you do. There is no one better equipped for the challenges ahead than you, the leaders in this room today. I am honoured to represent you as ASCL’s President this year and I am inspired by the change that we can lead together.

In the words of the American poet, Dr Clarissa Pinkola: “Great ships are meant for the high seas. We were made for times like these.”

Thank you so much for listening.