ASCL Conference

‘Being a school leader has never felt more challenging’

Geoff Barton on pay talks, workload, Keegan’s no-show and choosing the 'right time to leave'

Geoff Barton on pay talks, workload, Keegan’s no-show and choosing the 'right time to leave'

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Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the ASCL school leaders’ union, is deeply frustrated.

Pay talks with the government remain in stalemate. His members’ jobs have “never felt more challenging”. And for the first time since 2006, the education secretary will snub his leaders’ union conference.

“Everyone’s cross,” the former headteacher tells Schools Week. “Added to which I think, particularly in the teaching profession, there’s a sense of being taken for granted.

“Probably that will intensify on Friday with the absence for the first time, certainly in my memory, of a secretary of state.”

If crisis talks are happening on Friday, nobody’s told me

Gillian Keegan has told the union she won’t appear in Birmingham in case she is needed for urgent pay talks.

“If the reason is that we’re suddenly going to see crisis talks happening on Friday, nobody’s told me,” Barton says.

“It feels like there’s a lot more of a sense of urgency from the union side on all of this, which frankly wants to get this resolved, than there is on the government side, which seems to deem that being able to say ‘we had more talks’ is, in itself, the endgame.”

Unlike other unions, ASCL has not balloted its members for industrial action, holding off in favour of negotiation.

Barton believes this puts the leaders’ union in a “unique position”. Its first indicative ballot last year showed the “strength of feeling” in the traditionally moderate union.

He believes Keegan understands that the symbolism of a formal ASCL vote would be “pretty catastrophic. It gives us a distinctive position of being able to articulate a sense of urgency.”

Lack of an offer shows ‘amateurishness’

The government says it won’t enter formal talks unless the National Education Union (NEU) calls off next week’s strikes. The NEU insists the DfE drops its “pre-conditions”.

Keegan this week rejected calls for mediated talks via the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. For Barton’s members, the clock is ticking.

“What you need as a general secretary is something you can take back to the members and say, here’s what we’ve been offered. That’s all we’re looking for.

We’re probably moving towards the end of this phase of simply doing our very best to be constructive and feeling that actually nothing is happening

“The fact we haven’t even had that, and that there’s a condition put to the NEU that affects all of us around that, I think shows a kind of almost amateurishness in terms of trying to get this done. It’s frustrating. Really.”

ASCL may be reluctant to move to a ballot, but Barton is clear the union cannot hold out indefinitely.

A “key moment” will be next week’s budget. If there’s no extra investment, ASCL will reconsider its position.

“We’re probably moving towards the end of this phase of simply doing our very best to be constructive and feeling that actually nothing is happening.”

The latest teacher recruitment figures are dire, but retention is “eye-wateringly problematic” – and pay isn’t the only factor.

Schools becoming ‘fourth emergency service’

Evelyn Forde, ASCL’s president, will warn tomorrow that schools have become a “fourth emergency service”, left with an “unsustainable burden” by collapsing children’s support services.

A poll of union members found most had noticed a rise in students affected by poverty (86 per cent), poor mental health (99 per cent), abuse or neglect (71 per cent) and by being drawn into crime (63 per cent).

Of responding members, 99 per cent believe children’s mental health services are inadequate, while 96 per cent feel that way about social care and 93 per cent said the same about local authority educational psychology provision.

Most respondents also said council attendance support services and police services were inadequate.

Unions making ‘progress’ on workload

On workload, however, Barton believes unions have made some “progress” in DfE talks.

He detects a “willingness to consider” calls to end performance-related pay, opposed by the unions since its introduction almost 10 years ago, with officials recognising axing the policy is a “no-brainer”.

While Conservative politicians might face a “political challenge … there are times when you have to stand by your principles and point to the evidence and say, for you as a parent, this means your child is going to get a teacher who’s spending more time planning, teaching, marking, instead of filling in forms to show they’ve done all of that stuff.”

Heads also want Ofsted to inform schools of the year of their next inspection. Barton says this would allow leaders to “focus on the stuff that matters. It would be such an easy win, and there’s no cost.”

‘You want to choose the right time to leave’

Barton was re-elected in 2021. But he surprised the sector last year, announcing he will stand down in 2024.

He doesn’t want to talk about it, but says it was a “relatively easy decision. I’ve always been conscious that you want to choose the right time to leave. So that people aren’t saying, ‘yeah he used to be good, and he brought a lot of energy to the job, but actually, he’s lost it’.”

What will he do next? He “genuinely” hasn’t thought about it. But one thing he doesn’t want to do is sit on boards.

“That’s really not my skillset. I’m not going to be somebody who is mired in meetings.”

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