Next month, voting will take place in a keenly fought election that will decide who will be the next leader of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).
The contenders are education consultant Chris Kirk, who has been named as the ASCL executive’s preferred candidate, and Suffolk comprehensive head Geoff Barton, who has been a council member at the association for eight years.
Why have you chosen to stand for the role of ASCL general secretary?
Chris Kirk: “This is a key moment for ASCL – we are all dismayed about constant changes to policy, but we must not turn back to being an old-style union. We have to engage and be progressive.”
Geoff Barton: “I think it’s a really important time in education and a really important time for school leaders to make sure that we engage very positively with the government.”
Why should ASCL members elect you as their next leader?
CK: “I have been working with schools of all types for the past two decades; I can represent ASCL as a broad church. I understand how to make policy work in the real world. I have also got the management and leadership background to make ASCL a world-class organisation.”
GB: “I have been a member of ASCL for a long time and I have been a headteacher for 15 years, so on many issues I think I could bring an authentic voice. The frustrations that they face could be articulated by someone who has dealt with it on a daily basis.”
How should ASCL respond to the government’s plans to introduce more grammar schools?
CK: “It’s clear that ministers and civil servants want to find ways to implement selection, while having a minimal impact on non-grammar schools. I don’t see how that will be possible in a traditional two-tier system. ASCL needs to be very forceful about that.”
GB: “There ought to be a real sense of frustration. The government has talked about system leadership and the rhetoric has been about working with school leaders, then they made an out-of-the-blue announcement. I will be seeking to influence policy before we get announcements.”
How should the association handle the changes that will take place in education over the next decade?
CK: “ASCL must deal robustly with government, using evidence and strong messages alongside quiet diplomacy. ASCL can transform its support for members on a day-to-day basis by providing online tools to help them do their work. We have to continue to look at how ASCL manages its finances, so members get great value for money.”
GB: “I think there is an extraordinary opportunity for ASCL. It has a database to die for. The most exciting thing that we can do is join all these people up a bit better to help them with recruitment, training and support.”
What would be the first thing you would do as general secretary if you were elected?
CK: “I would engage vigorously with the government about the key issues causing problems to our members in schools, such as funding, changes to curriculum and assessment, and workload. But there is also the need to engage internally. Staff need to feel motivated and in control of their work.”
GB: “I would meet the team – I know many of them and respect them hugely – and I would listen to the people of ASCL about where they think we are now. I would also spend time with school leaders, visiting schools, and would listen to members who are craving a firmer voice from ASCL.”
What do you see as being the role of ASCL general secretary?
CK: “Members need somebody who can be credibly listened to by government and they need to know they are protected if they need professional support. In a nutshell, for the general secretary this isn’t just education, education, education. It’s education, negotiation, implementation.”
GB: “The most exciting part is taking ASCL into an uncertain future and having a real sense about where we go next. The government should be held to account on policy, insisting that there is evidence for anything that is put forward and there has been a consultation.”
Is the association benefiting from its relationship with the government?
CK: “I think ASCL has achieved a number of really important successes, but I know members are frustrated that ASCL is not able to do more. We need a fair funding formula, further progress on the English Baccalaureate, workload and teacher supply – and the government to see sense about evidence on selection.”
GB: “I think ASCL has benefited but they have had to explain that to their members. A lot of the influencing is behind closed doors. I think we should have a slightly firmer approach to how we articulate that. We also need to be very clear with the government when an idea is not sensible. With Year 7 resits [of Sats], we could have said we didn’t want to do it.”
What will be the biggest challenges facing ASCL members over the next decade?
CK: “Funding, teacher shortages, assessment changes and high-stakes accountability. Ofsted has to transform its image from a playground bully to a critical friend. I think the football-manager culture is happening too often in leadership. One bad inspection and you’ll sack the head and bring in someone new.”
GB: “Funding, without a doubt. Malcolm Trobe [ASCL interim general secretary] has made it quite clear that school funding is falling over the edge of a cliff. We need to articulate that clearly, not only to the government but also to parents, who will be frustrated when they see the effects of serious biting cuts on staffing.”
What is your view of this government’s record on education?
CK: “I think current ministers and civil servants do believe that education is one of the best ways to give every child a better life. But the government is risking falling into the trap of micromanagement. The sector should be given independent oversight in a number of areas – including leadership development and school performance.”
GB: “A lot of us were discouraged about the way the announcement was made about selection. We thought the policy would have been made after a consultation. But the government is giving the policy funding before the consultation is even over, which is very frustrating.”
Should ASCL join with other unions to form a single education union?
CK: “I don’t think it should be an immediate priority for ASCL. I think the organisation has more urgent things to look into.”
GB: “It seems to be the fashionable thing at the moment. It is probably sensible to have an open mind about how we would work together to help school leaders.”