End-of-year optimism

27th July 2012 at 01:00

Forgive any whiff of demob-happiness. I'm writing at the end of another school year and in the midst of a strong course of aversion therapy.

According to a learned journal (oh, all right then, Wikipedia), aversion therapy is a type of treatment designed to "make a patient give up an undesirable habit by causing them to associate it with an unpleasant effect". In my case, it entails reading stuff about education in The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail. The side-effects are fiendish - a tendency to rant, to cry out and to fester endlessly about whether we have failed our own children by not sending them to private school. I gather this is perfectly normal.

These newspapers are where we are most likely to unearth the latest golden nugget of government thinking about education, where we read of falling standards, inadequate teachers or the shimmering promise of a golden age soon to be restored. In particular, they are where we get headlines confirming that Michael Gove is the saviour of Conservative ideals - someone proudly rekindling the dreams of a once-great education system discredited by unruly comprehensives and the GCSE - as well as a continually restated affirmation that everyone working in the state sector is rubbish.

So, as we scramble to regain our perspective from the welcome foothills of the school holidays, I'd like to leave behind some advice to Gove, and to fellow school leaders, for the year ahead.

I take as my first text Tony Blair's A Journey. In it, he laments the fact that the levers of power are so hard to move, that ideas rustled up in Whitehall bunkers are so difficult to translate into practice, especially across thousands of classrooms. That's why I would want to be more cautious than some in awarding Gove an end-of-year A*. There's certainly been a lot of activity, a million announcements. But I subscribe to basketball coach John Wooden's motto: "Never mistake activity for achievement."

And I've recently read Ben Levin's How to Change 5,000 Schools, based on his experience as deputy minister for education in Ontario, Canada. One of the keys to success, he says, is ensuring that "public statements of the government are constantly supportive of public education". Constant criticism won't make things better. I would suggest the Department for Education takes note. This means stopping the sniping, the corrosive tone that leads parents to doubt their local school.

As for school leaders, perhaps we need to stop being quite so cowed in the face of it all. Let's remind ourselves that other jurisdictions frequently look enviously to us - for the quality of school leadership, our innovation, our emphasis on creativity. They marvel at our pastoral support and the richness of our extracurricular provision.

After all, the great advantage we have over those working on education issues in distant offices is that, day in, day out, we work directly with young people. Even on bad days, they usually exude optimism. Let's savour it more, celebrate it more loudly and relish the privilege of helping to shape young lives for an uncertain but exciting future. They're the people we truly serve.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

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