Why I’m backing #ASCLBarton

In a previous post on my history of union membership, I waxed lyrical over my ASCL membership. Here’s what I wrote:

Now that I’m in ASCL I feel like I belong to a union that does speak with my voice. When I read Brian Lightman’s responses to the GCSE fiasco, to the EBac proposal, to the proposals for performance-related pay, they seem rational, reasoned and responsible. They represent the profession as a profession, and when I hear the national officers speak at conferences, they seem committed to constructive negotiation on our behalf with the Secretary of State and the Department for Education. This model of the representative voice constructively negotiating with the senior leadership on behalf of teachers is precisely that which works so well in school, scaled up to the national level.

I stand by those comments. I do think that the Association of School and College Leaders represents the profession well. I am proud of my membership and I feel like ASCL represents me, as a Headteacher, in the way I would like to be represented. Their Blueprint for a Self-Improving System is a document I return to, alongside the Headteachers’ Roundtable Five Principles and Alternative Green Paper, as a common-sense but ambitious vision for how education could work in this country.

Now, ASCL members are faced with a choice. Two candidates have been placed before the membership of the association for election to the post of General Secretary. The ASCL selection committee have nominated Chris Kirk, who has spent fourteen years at PwC as an education leader as well as stints at the National College, as a director of education services for GEMS, and at the Department for Education as a civil servant. Before that, he spent a year in the classroom. Around 300 ASCL members, myself included, nominated his opponent, Geoff Barton, who started teaching in 1985 and hasn’t stopped since. Geoff has been a Headteacher since 2002.

Both candidates are qualified to lead ASCL, but for me the choice is clear. Who do I want representing school and college leaders at a national level, influencing policy, engaging in debate, challenging the evidence base behind decision making, and holding the Secretary of State and the Department to account? I want the candidate who has been where I am now, as a serving Headteacher, facing the challenges of the current system and climate, and really understanding them. Not in theory, but in practice. The candidate who has spent over thirty years in schools, in classrooms, teaching and leading.  The candidate who has been endorsed by Stephen Tierney, John Tomsett, Kev Bartle, Rob Campbell, Ros McMullen, Caroline Spalding, Ross McGill and countless other teachers and leaders I admire and respect from across the country.


Click the image to tweet your support for #ASCLBarton

In his manifesto, Geoff outlines the challenges currently facing our “perilously fragmented system”:

  • funding
  • teacher and leadership recruitment
  • the proposal to resurrect educational selection
  • an apparent marginalisation of vocational education and the arts
  • the fallout from over-hasty qualification reform
  • an inspection regime which for too many leaders continues to feel punitive

These are all critical issues facing our profession today. The top three – funding, recruitment, and the return of selection – all loom large in the top left “urgent/important” quadrant of my Covey Matrix. That they have pushed the other three towards the top right hand corner indicate the unprecedented level of crisis across education. We need an eloquent, level-headed and experienced leader to articulate the genuine concerns that every Headteacher I speak to is feeling.

But what Geoff also brings to the table is optimism. In amongst the dark clouds and portents of doom, the horses eating one another in the stable and the spilled salt, Geoff brightens my Twitter timeline with silly humour, tales of the unexpected and dry reflections on obscure words in the English language. Geoff is already a high-profile figure. A published author, a well-known writer, and an engaging public speaker, his over 35,000 twitter followers show that he has the capacity to reach not only school leaders and teachers, but a wider audience too. His voice will be a powerful one not only to ensure that this issues are clear – he articulated the funding crisis in just this way in the Guardian in November – but also that the many positives in teaching continue to be communicated far and wide. He promises to battle hard to defend, champion and celebrate the profession he has devoted his life’s work to. I will be supporting him all the way.

So what now? If you are an ASCL member – or if you know an ASCL member – it’s vital that you engage with the election for General Secretary. Whoever is elected will be our voice. Read the information on the ASCL website and, when your ballot paper arrives in January, vote. As 2016 has shown us, anything can happen when democracy is unleashed. So read. Fill in your ballot. And vote.


What would do most to improve the status of the teaching profession?


I have blogged before about the limited public image of the teaching profession. About how, despite polling as the second-most-trusted profession on the UK in February 2013, the profession lacks the social status of medicine, science, and the law. Why is this? And what can we do about it?New College Oxford

In November 2012, I was invited back to my Oxford college to speak at a careers day. Alumni of the college from many different employment sectors were there to speak to undergraduates about career options, training routes, and postgraduate opportunities in their respective professions. There were accountants, arts administrators, broadcasters, civil servants, journalists, lawyers, management consultants, medical professionals, manufacturers, musicians, priests, researchers and teachers, amongst many others (including a circus manager). The first session – where the alumni were put together by the degrees they had studied with undergraduates currently on the same courses – showed the diversity of opportunities available to these young people. In the second session the alumni were grouped by their employment sectors in the Hall and waited for undergraduates interested in their sector to visit them to ask questions. I sat with the four other teachers – three state, two independent – to wait. The accountancy, law and management consultancy tables were busy. The priest had an earnest conversation with one undergraduate for about half an hour. The broadcasters and journalists had several visitors. We saw nobody. Not a single undergraduate from my Oxford college came to ask about teaching.

How, then, can we improve the status of teaching so that it becomes as attractive and viable to the high-achieving undergraduates at top universities as those other professions? Is it about pay? I don’t think so – as a teacher I’ve always earned enough to be comfortable and PRP is I think an invidious and unhelpful solution to a non-problem. Is it about career progression? Again, I don’t think so. There are clear and varied progression routes in teaching just as in medicine and law. Is it about entry routes? There may be something here. My PGCE was a necessary step but was a year extra without being in paid work. School Direct, GTP, Teach First and the raft of SCITT approaches go some way to addressing this, although I would still argue it is harder for someone to switch professions into teaching than some other sectors.

Or is it about public perception? The truth of public opinions of teachers, shown in the IPSOS-MORI poll above, is that they are held in very high regard. But the rhetoric in the press tells a very different story.


I agree with Cherrylkd that our teaching unions do little to help in the circus of unreasonable extremism masquerading as conference season. Even the NAHT fell victim to this at their recent AGM, heckling and jeering at Michael Gove despite Bernadette Hunter’s attempts to pass this off as expressions of “exasperation and indignation“. What the unions don’t seem to realise is that Michael Gove wants them to go hard-line. The strikes and jeering will play into his hands as his response to the NAHT conference in the Times, his letter to schools branding the NUT/NASUWT pay policy “illegal”, and his “blob” accusations show. I can’t help feeling he views PRP as a a tool to break the unions; his Thatcher moment. He relishes the thought of their ineffective action and the negative spin he will easily be able to put on the strikes to come, confirming the “enemies of promise” narrative he has already set in motion. It will make it easy for him to brand any arguments coming from the left in education as guilty by association.

It is of course horrendous that the Secretary of State for Education and Chief Inspector of Schools between them are leading lights in undermining and denigrating the profession in their public statements. “Stop moaning” says Wilshaw. “Low expectations” says Gove. What’s even worse is that their criticisms may be true of some members of our profession, and that the unions seem to confirm the narrative in their obstreperous resistance to and blanket rejection of any kind of progress or change, even when it might actually be a good thing (progress measure based on the best 8, for example).

The vast majority of teachers, I believe, share Ross McGill’s view:

However, RedorGreenPen has written brilliantly about how easy it is for a teacher with the highest expectations (and redorgreenpen is clearly one of those) to have those expectations eroded with weak leadership and a lack of support systems. And this is where I believe the solutions begin – with school leadership. If the profession is to live up to the trust that the public places in us and defy the “enemies of promise” label so readily bandied around by those in charge at policy level, school leaders must do all we can to empower teachers to maintain the high standards they aspire to for the young people in our charge. We should avoid the traps of defective school leadership laid out by Joe Kirby in “What makes great school leadership?” and fulfil the seven positives:

  1. Entrench the ethos
  2. Avoid fads
  3. Walk the talk
  4. Ban excuses
  5. Focus on teaching
  6. Ensure consistency
  7. Build trust

We should heed the words of Rob Carter in “What would you say?“, Stephen Tierney in “Advice to new senior leaders“, Kev Bartle in “Ten Commandments for School Leaders” and Peter Smith in “7 things successful heads of department do“. Above all we should behave professionally and responsibly, engaging with problems and tackling change constructively, rationally and calmly. We wouldn’t want our teachers jeering and heckling us in staff meetings, we wouldn’t want our students behaving like that in lessons. Although that is the dominant mode in parliament, we can set a better example.

This post is a response to the May #blogsync topic hosted at Edutronic.

Limited public image

The public trusts teachers. Honestly – they do. Look, here’s the proof, from the Ipsos MORI Trust Poll in February 2013:


The public place more trust in teachers than in TV newsreaders and judges. 86% of British adults trust teachers to tell the truth, whereas only 18% would trust a politician to do so. On the balance of probabilities, then, it’s clearly quite likely that Michael Gove is spinning a line when he describes us as “Enemies of Promise” or “The Blob”, or when he argues that we should work for longer each day and with less holiday, or when Sir Michael Wilshaw says we don’t know the meaning of the word “stress”. Yet the damage done to the morale of the profession by these attacks – what Polly Toynbee calls “teacher bashing” – is immense.

Of course, it doesn’t help when the profession itself contributes to the erosion of our public image with utterly impractical union conference motions passed – teaching should be capped at 20 hours a week, for example. Little wonder that even within the NUT a group has sprung up to decry the hard-left headline grabbers. Ian Grayson, a member of the NUT national executive, said:

“The vast majority of NUT members are well-educated, reasonable people who just don’t feel the same way as the extreme left who take the podium. Industrial action has a place, but we oppose calls for perpetual industrial action. We would tend towards a programme of constructive dialogue instead.”

Unsurprisingly, Grayson’s stance didn’t get a lot of media coverage. Instead, Gove went on the offensive with his attack on The Blob and implication that we’re workshy chancers who should work for longer, despite the international evidence that more contact time does not improve educational outcomes.  He is pressing on with the introduction of a performance related pay system which all the evidence is against to tackle the problem of a failing education system which isn’t, if you look at the evidence, actually failing.

So how can we tackle this erosion of our wonderful profession?  What can we possibly do? Go on strike? A strike will surely play into the hands of an education secretary spoiling for a fight. It makes it easy for him to brand teachers “enemies of promise” and accuse them of not caring about the kids and their hard working families. Taking him on anywhere but at the ballot box is not going to help.

Instead we need to build on the “programme of constructive dialogue” that has begun. Groups like the Heads Roundtable have shown that it is far more productive to offer a rational, evidenced alternative solution to what is offered than to stand shouting “No! We don’t like it! Stop! We have no confidence in you!”. Debra Kidd, whose brilliant performance on Channel 4 news represented the profession so well, has written a persuasive call to get behind Mick Waters’ education spring. And Michael Gove himself has given schools and teachers the freedom to set our own pay and conditions, to design and implement our own curricula, and to run schools the way we think they should be run. This is how our profession can succeed. We have more power than perhaps we realise.

If we teach well and set the agenda in our own schools, our great profession can be impervious to the attacks and accusations that are thrown at us. The trust that is placed in us to cherish, nurture and teach the most precious asset that any person will ever have – their children – will only be repaid if we continue to do that job brilliantly and with the kind of dedication that is the daily norm for the vast majority of teachers. It isn’t easy, and it’s likely to get tougher and tougher as economic, social and political conditions challenge us. But teachers are equal to it if we keep our attention firmly on what matters – the young people entrusted to us. Because if we do what we do, and do it well, we will be unassailable.

Strike action – my union history

When I was a PGCE student, I was a member of the NASUWT, ATL and the NUT. I was courted with free highlighters, post-its and notepads because, as an NQT, I’d need to choose one. I needed to be in a union “just in case”. A union was an insurance policy; protection in case I ever needed it. I joined the NUT because practically everybody in my first school was in it. And that was all the thought I gave it.

As an in-school voice to protect and speak for teachers at a local level, I have always found unions to be constructive and helpful. Having your union rep by and on your side is a heartening and empowering thing. As a classroom teacher I was always grateful for the union reps who met with the senior team to negotiate on workload, vet the calendar, and feed back any concerns about the institution on my behalf. As a senior leader I am, if anything, even more grateful to the excellent union reps who now meet with me to do the same on behalf of the classroom teachers in my school.

My problem with teaching unions comes at national level. Whereas I felt the union reps in school spoke with my voice and represented my views as a classroom teacher, the same could not be said for the national executive. I used to read the NUT magazine and despair. It seemed to me to be a PR disaster. I resigned from the NUT in 2008 as they called strike action, transferring to the ATL as they were a non-striking union. I stayed with them, in AMiE, as I moved into senior leadership. ATL promptly went ahead and reneged on their non-striking policy, calling strikes in June 2011. I resigned my membership, joining ASCL. AMiE are still sending me their monthly publication, though, even though I haven’t paid a penny in subs for two years…

Now that I’m in ASCL I feel like I belong to a union that does speak with my voice. When I read Brian Lightman’s responses to the GCSE fiasco, to the EBac proposal, to the proposals for performance-related pay, they seem rational, reasoned and responsible. They represent the profession as a profession, and when I hear the national officers speak at conferences, they seem committed to constructive negotiation on our behalf with the Secretary of State and the Department for Education. This model of the representative voice constructively negotiating with the senior leadership on behalf of teachers is precisely that which works so well in school, scaled up to the national level.

I don’t believe teachers should strike. Not because the issues don’t demand it – they really do, perhaps now under this government more than ever. Newspapers and “the media” (awfully glib term) don’t often find opportunities to paint a positive picture of our profession – if we’re not exactly “enemies of promise” we’re usually to blame for not preventing most of society’s ills. I know – we know – how hard we work, but the perception from outside is that we have thirteen weeks’ holiday and a working day 8:30-3:30.  And when schools close due to strike action we can’t underestimate the impact that has as parents rearrange childcare, as the self-employed businessman loses a day’s work, as grandparents are pressed into action, as shifts are rearranged, as an employee takes one day of her precious four weeks of annual holiday to look after her children. This is not, in my view, the means to garner public support behind the issues.

Of course Gove’s article in the Daily Mail aligning the striking teachers with a Marxist conspiracy is a fabrication.  The fact that he attributes Marxist motives to a conspiracy he claims is “actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need” should be enough to prove this. But he is already manoeuvring so that, when the strikes begin, teachers will be perceived as “enemies of promise” rather than acting out of legitimate self-interest. He is, as I have said before, an incredibly gifted politician who is far more than a match for the union leaders who are trying to take him on. When they threaten strikes, he uses them as fuel to further his own agenda. Every blustering attack they make is used as ammunition against them.

So what should we do? Just roll over and accept what is proposed? Of course not. We must negotiate, lobby and protest. But the confrontational nature of strike action does our profession a disservice. And in the three schools I’ve worked in whilst strike action has been called, it has caused division and discord. The unions don’t strike together, so some staff go out and others come in. Even within union memberships in schools I have worked in, they have voted for staff to act with their consciences rather than follow the union call. It seems to me that the heart of the profession is in action, but not in strike action. By calling strikes, the unions risk fracturing what little unity we are able to muster.

Industrial Action

At the time of writing, the NUT and NASUWT are involved in industrial action short of strike action. The aim of this action is “Protecting Teachers”. Michael Gove has issued guidance to schools intimating that this action constitutes a breach of contract and that any teachers taking action should have their pay docked.

I believe that the unions are right to try to protect teachers from the myriad threats that currently face us. The EBacc, changes to pay, changes to pensions, free schools, forced academisation, phonics and grammar tests, the GCSE fiasco…we are an embattled profession, and we need defending, as the YouGov survey commissioned by the NUT demonstrated to good effect.

However, I have grave concerns over the action currently being taken.

Firstly, I am not sure what it is trying to achieve. There is no “we will stop this action when…” statement attached to it, no concrete objective. I’m not sure exactly what it’s for.

Secondly, it has no impact on the Secretary of State. The action makes schools more difficult to run and thus, potentially, creates conflicts and divisions between school leaders and staff at exactly the time when we should be most united against common threats.

Thirdly, it is not a union action. The point of a union is to act together. Yet staff nationwide appear to be choosing individually whether or not to abide by the action, which elements of the action they are following and which not. Far from demonstrating the sharp unity of the teaching profession against the overwhelming challenges we are facing, this action is showing the profession to be divided and blunted. Michael Gove is not blind to this – at the start of the guidance to schools he says: “in the great majority of schools, the industrial action is not having an impact because teachers are instead focusing entirely on providing the best possible education for their pupils.”

I agree with Michael Gove. There, I’ve said it. Professionals are being forced to choose between their professionalism and acting as a union – and the majority of the best, most principled, and most professional teachers are choosing to do their job well and provide the best standard of education for the students in their care. Unfortunately, this means not abiding by elements of the union action, thus shattering the concept of acting as a union.

I know that what Gove has said is political spin. But the unions are not exactly making it difficult for him to spin them as “enemies of promise”. They seem like lumbering dinosaurs wandering clumsily into a trap set by the agile politicians – easy prey for a Secretary of State as nimble and astute as Gove is. My fear is that when the unions eventually call for more meaningful action, they will find their members so used to not taking action that it will fall flat on its face…

Little wonder that the profession is turning to new groups like The Heads Roundtable to campaign over EBacc, to Geoff Barton and the legal coalition to campaign over the GCSE fiasco, and to ASCL to provide a voice of reason in negotiation with the Government. For as a profession we should be united, but it is not the teaching unions which unite us.