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Geoff Barton, ASCL General Secretary
Annual Conference | 16 March 2019

Seventy-five years ago, a nation wearied by war, riven by anxiety, uncertain of its future, craved optimism. The year was 1944, and as the historian Michael Jago puts it:

“Middle-class England was shocked by the persistence of ‘two nations’. Almost one million children were receiving no education at all. There was widespread shame at the failure of the British education system to educate ‘the citizens of tomorrow’.”

Three years earlier, on 21st December 1941, four religious leaders - the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York, the Archbishop of Westminster, and the Moderator of the Free Church – had sent a letter to the Times.

In it they called for a sense of national renewal. And one of their five proposals was specifically about education. Here’s what they said:

“Every child, regardless of race or class, should have equal opportunities of education, suitable for the development of his particular capacities.”

This was the same year, 1941, when Winston Churchill appointed his new President of the Board of Education. His name: Robert Austen Butler. Rab Butler.

Churchill viewed working in the education department as a merely managerial role, the principal responsibility being to handle wartime evacuation. He explained to Butler: “You will move poor children from here to here,” as he shifted imaginary children across the blotting pad on his desk at Number 10.

But Butler proved to be anything but managerial. Years before, during his Cambridge undergraduate days, his father suggested that Rab should pursue a fellowship of his college in order then to become a don, an academic.

And Rab had given a simple but assertive response to his father:

“Dad, I must do something which is going to help the world of today and not that of yesterday …”

And so, it would be.

Thus, in the throes of war, new to his post, Butler immediately introduced provision of breaktime milk for 3½ million children. He doubled the number of daily school lunches to over 700,000.

In spite of wartime shortages, this initiative led to dramatic improvement in children’s health. Here was education demonstrably and decisively at the heart of a nation’s future wellbeing.

Then Butler turned his attention to a bold new education act, and as he laid the proposals before parliament, he said:

“Let us see that in our time we have achieved something. Let us say that in this time of strife we have ensured the fulfilment of our hopes that a plan for the future world will go through.”

That was 1944, 75 years ago, and a reminder if we needed it that little matters more than investing in our nation’s future. It’s a reminder too that true leadership rises above adversity, above fragmentation, above the pessimism of social inevitability. It instead creates a sense of connected leadership, collective mission, a determination to shape the future rather than be defined by the past.

I want us today to draw upon that vision of Rab Butler’s 1944 education act, 75 years ago this year, not for what it was, but for what it stood for: a manifesto for optimism, education recognised for what it can be - the transformer of lives.

Isn’t that, after all, for most of us why we came into education? Weren’t most of us, in the choices we made, echoing those words of the young Butler to his father?:

“I must do something which is going to help the world of today and not that of yesterday …”

So, in a moment I want to talk about some areas of education where ASCL is determined to do more than perpetuate the educational status quo. I want us to remind ourselves that perhaps we could be more ambitious for our young people, our staff, for ourselves.

And I’m especially going to focus on what lies at the heart of education, the people who matter most – our children and young people, our nation’s future. Because from what you’re telling me, it’s feeling as if they are craving some calm, rational leadership of adults to help guide them through a turbulent world.

And in looking to the future, understand that I’m not downplaying the challenges you face as leaders in early years, primary, secondary and post-16 education now, in the present.

I couldn’t be clearer about the urgency of your concerns around funding, recruitment, retention, young people’s mental health, teachers’ mental health, our own mental health, the corrosive impact of child poverty, of a society that feels increasingly fragmented, a public discourse too often venomous, unforgiving, quick to condemn. So, I’m going to do as the Dalai Lama suggested: ‘Choose to be optimistic. It feels better."

But to reach the optimism, we also have to be honest about the present.

Yesterday, we shared the responses from more than 10% of England and Wales’s secondary headteachers, in which they outlined how their schools have to step in to pick up the pieces as other services shrivel away, starved of funding.

And much of what these leaders say is heartbreaking. More than that, to hear these accounts, here in one of the world’s most powerful economies, feels somehow shaming:

  • “In 24 years of education I have not seen the extent of poverty like this,” says one headteacher. “Children are coming to school hungry, dirty and without the basics to set them up for life. The gap between those that have and those that do not is rising and is stark.”

  • Another: “Parents have been plunged into poverty and many have lost their homes as a result. We have seen an increase in the number of families needing support for basic human needs, food, hygiene and basic equipment to access school. The loss of most other services means that parents and families have nowhere to go for support or help.”

  • And another: “Every day I wonder: is this a developing or a developed country? Every evening I lose sleep thinking about the challenges my pupils face and the fact I can only do so much.”

And all this, on the watch of a government that talks about social mobility.

So, in talking about ASCL shaping a more optimistic future for education, it’s not because I wish to downplay the gritty, relentless reality of being a leader, day in, day out, in your school or college.

I know how vulnerable it can feel – our public acts of confidence masking the gnawing self-doubt we too often feel within. I know this. I think of the message I received early one morning from a long-standing headteacher who texted me to say, bleakly: “It’s the start of the school day. I’m sitting in my car in the staff car park. I can’t face going in.”

I think of those heads called in for what they assumed were routine meetings with the chair of trustees or governors to be told that, after years of service, they no longer fitted in here, they weren’t any longer seen as part of the solution but part of the problem. They were told they could either leave by mutual agreement or expect to face capability proceedings.

I think of the leader who moved to a school in a coastal community, a place which had long ago given up faith in education, someone who, with her team, gave blood, sweat and tears to turning this school around, only then to find her school named and shamed by a tabloid newspaper branding it as one of the worst schools in the country, using – in a particularly bitter twist - data derived from the Department for Education.

So, none of what I say about the future is designed to underplay what you deal with in the present.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

In her compelling memoir, Becoming, Michelle Obama describes watching her new young husband heading out to public meetings with a sceptical local electorate in the Chicago suburbs. These were people who had given up much belief that politics could do anything for them. Barack Obama looks them in the eye and says:

“Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?”

Let’s talk about three areas – funding, accountability; then let’s talk about young people.

Yesterday we were proud to launch our True Cost of Education report. In it, we’ve stepped back and asked the big question about our education system – how much money do our schools need to deliver the basic expectations that society looks to us to provide and which children deserve? What should be the minimum entitlement of every child from every background in every community, and how much would it cost?

This isn’t about ‘little extras’, it’s about a series of important assumptions. Do we believe that every child from every background should be taught by a qualified teacher? Do we believe those teachers should be entitled to a minimum level of time for planning, preparation and marking, and that reasonable class sizes should be an entitlement, not a matter of luck?

In other words, we have taken the question posed last year by Robert Halfon MP, chair of the House of Commons Education Committee, in the committee’s inquiry into school funding. So, said Mr Halfon, how much money does education need?

Our True Cost of Education report, developed by a team of funding specialists, addresses that question. But it isn’t the figure we want to fixate on. It’s the assumptions behind it, the methodology.

On behalf of parents and taxpayers, and in particular on behalf of children and young people, we’re seeking to match expectations to resources. What is clear is that a gap has emerged as schools have been asked to do more and more, with a funding settlement which has not only failed to keep pace with those expectations, but shrunk in real terms.

Our report is an attempt to recalibrate school funding. It is designed to open up a wider discussion about how we create a modern, fit-for-purpose education system that serves every child from every background in every community. It has the ambition of that 1944 Education Act. It dares to ask the bigger question. What do our schools need and our young people deserve? And our aim is to work not in opposition to the Department for Education, but constructively and positively with ministers and civil servants, to develop this new way of thinking as part of the forthcoming spending review.

Next there’s accountability – an ugly word that’s used far too much when we talk about education. At some point in the past we allowed accountability to mean something that was done to us by other people. We let performance measures and inspection somehow become a spurious shorthand for education.

And in the process perhaps we forgot what matters most, and certainly what parents and carers most want from schools and colleges – children who are safe, happy, provided with a broad and balanced curriculum, getting good results as a stepping stone into the future, and gaining an opportunity from reliable adults on how to become citizens of the future.

That’s why as an association we have welcomed the direction of travel by Ofsted in refocusing inspection on the substance of education. We believe that this helps us all to reclaim an essential bit of collective knowledge – a deeper understanding of the role the curriculum plays in building children’s knowledge, aptitudes and skills. We believe that there is an opportunity for leaders to demonstrate the curriculum that they believe is right for their young people, for the needs of their communities.

The future may well be one in which Ofsted inspections figure less in our routine conversations, where current grading disappears, where intelligent and rigorous self-review of schools and colleges becomes the norm, trusted by parents for its objectivity, thereby leaving Ofsted to focus on supporting institutions that need greater support.

We believe the new incarnation of the inspection framework is an important step towards that. That’s why the principle of inspection becoming a co-constructed experience between inspection and school leadership teams, a professional conversation that leaves a school or college better knowing itself – these are aims we have supported.

And whilst, of course, the devil will be in the detail, we want to register the constructive way in which Amanda Spielman and her team have involved us in their thinking and developmental work, been open to our criticisms, and recognised that we must start to do inspection differently.

We’re also exploring a new approach to performance tables. How much value is there in a system in which some schools – those in the most disadvantaged areas – are always most likely to fare the worst? Is pointing out this fact really the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’? Or is the reality that the current system stigmatises schools, making it harder to recruit the teachers and leaders who would help to secure improvement, and demoralising families and communities in the process? How much value is there in a system which penalises schools with the most vulnerable learners?

Whilst it may be true that Progress 8 is the best accountability measure we’ve had – or at least the least bad one – we want to explore what ‘inclusive accountability’ might look like. That is a system which is not built on the demeaning foundations that for one institution to do better another has to do worse, where instead there’s recognition of those leaders who look beyond the territory of their own school gates and work to ensure the quality provision for our most vulnerable young people, those too easily marginalised, excluded or off-rolled.

Over the coming year we’ll explore how inclusive accountability could recalibrate a fragmented education system, putting collaboration and partnership at the fore.

Then there’s young people. We see their passion to change the planet, the hunger their generation has to puncture the complacency of my generation, a true optimism that the world can be better.

Yet we also worry about mental health issues. This isn’t the trademark of a snowflake generation: it’s the new landscape for all of us, but at its most bewildering for the young.

For those of us beyond a certain age, social media is something there on the edge of our lives. But what is it like to be a young person whose identity can too often feel as if it is defined by your public sense of self – by the number of people who like or retweet you or count you as an online friend? This blurring of the boundaries between public and private self is bound to make growing up more challenging.

Then there’s the pressure piled onto GCSEs. That groundbreaking qualification designed for a different era, in which students then either left school or proceeded to college or the sixth form, is buckling under the weight of expectations. We use it to judge the child, the cohort, the teacher, the head, and the school.

And in the process of reform, we’ve ended up with a system in which the average 16-year- old is sitting more than 30 hours of exams. How can that possibly be necessary, given the GCSE should chiefly be there to help a young person make the right choice in post-16 progression?

And what does it feel like on GCSE results day to go and collect your results when you have gained a Grade 3 in English and maths? As soon as we deem a Grade 4 a ‘standard pass’, and a Grade 5 the more aspirational ‘strong pass’, where does that leave you with your Grade 3? What are we as a nation saying to a young person who after 12 years of being taught by teachers through early years, primary and secondary education, gets a Grade 3 and then two years of mandatory resits. Why do we insist in rubbing their noses in disappointment?

Last summer, there were nearly 190,000 children who didn’t achieve at least a Grade 4 in English and maths. This year, because of the way our examination system works, determined not to allow accusations of grade inflation, there will be a similar number.

How can it be right that so many young people emerge without qualifications which are viewed as a passport to further study and future employment? We do this in the name of rigour apparently. But are we in fact judging the success of the majority by the perceived failure of the minority? Because our system is predicated on the fact that for all those top grades and students pictured in local newspapers jumping for joy, thousands of students must score 3s, 2s and 1s. Those international jurisdictions we are exhorted to admire wouldn’t consider it reasonable to assume a decent education system has to be based on a third of its young people not achieving the national standards.

Surely we owe them the dignity of a qualification?

Chaired by distinguished educationalist Roy Blatchford, ASCL’s Commission of Enquiry into the ‘Forgotten Third’ published its interim report yesterday, raising questions about the nature of the current GCSE English language examination and exploring other ways of recognising achievement in the basics. It will publish its final report in June, and before the usual suspects sound the predictable warning about the danger of prizes for all, it is maybe worth reflecting that the interpretation of education as a sporting event is what has got us into this mess in the first place.

So, with funding, accountability, and the Forgotten Third, here are three ways that our association is aiming to shape a more optimistic education system, 75 years after that Butler Education Act.

And in doing so, we aim to tell a more positive story about education, recognising that it is already far better than we acknowledge, and committed to doing something which is going to ‘help the world of today and not that of yesterday.’

As the American poet, Mary Oliver, puts it:

“When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.”

Let’s hold on to that absolute faith, exemplified in your schools and colleges every day, of the power of education to shape lives and improve our world. And thank you all for your resilience, your humanity, your optimism. Thank you for your leadership.