New ASCL boss strikes optimistic tone as pay battle looms

Pepe Di'Iasio speaks to Schools Week as he prepares to take over at headteachers' union

Pepe Di'Iasio speaks to Schools Week as he prepares to take over at headteachers' union

Pepe Di’Iasio wants to kick off his tenure as ASCL general secretary on an optimistic note.

But when your own school has buckets under leaking ceilings and a £500,000 SEND funding black hole, it’s tricky to remain upbeat.

The head of Wales High School in Rotherham will take over from Geoff Barton next month – and he’s got his work cut out.

The government has signalled teachers will get a miserly pay rise in September and two teaching unions are already holding preliminary strike ballots.

Could Di’Iasio, who himself voted to strike in last year’s historic ballot, envisage ASCL calling another vote?

‘The signs are not good’

“I’d really hope not. But the signs are not good, are they?” he says.

“Strike action is the very last thing we’d want to do.

“But when you’ve got a workforce that is unable to recruit and retain the staff that it needs, and when you add all the cuts that are going to need to take place in order to make ends meet, it’s hard to see how members will feel positive looking at the year ahead.”

He adds: “What we want is a fair and reasonable settlement. But if that isn’t there, there’s a democratic process that would come into play.”

Last week, in evidence to the School Teachers’ Review Body, the Department for Education called for a “more sustainable” rise than those seen in the last two years.

And government analysis suggests schools only have enough headroom in budgets next year to cover a two per cent increase.

Di’Iasio read the evidence with “disappointment”. He says: “I think given the way the country is right now and the cost of living right now, it would be a strange situation for the government to suggest that the teaching profession should take a pay cut next year.”

Leaders doing ‘bloody good job’

Despite a desperate situation on funding and pay, Di’Iasio remains “optimistic about the future” and wants heads, who have an “awful lot to be proud of”, to take greater credit for their hard work.

He pointed to ministers’ boasts about last year’s PISA results and the improving Ofsted grade profile of schools. Leaders, he says, “need to accept – and sometimes we’re not always good [at accepting] – that we’re doing a bloody good job”.

He takes the reins at a critical moment. ASCL’s membership has grown by almost a third to 22,400 since Barton took office in 2017. Covid, and last year’s strike ballot – the first in ASCL’s history – raised the union’s profile.

We meet in his office at Wales, a sprawling 1970s-built secondary which caters for more than 1,800 pupils. A West Wing box-set adorns his windowsill, and a model of the Tardis from Doctor Who – a student DT project – sits by his desk.

He jokes about Barton’s upcoming “regeneration” and pays tribute to his predecessor’s “incredible job” leading the organisation for the past seven years.

Di’Iasio says it would be “easy to focus on the lack of funding and lack of investment” in schools.

“Actually, there are things now happening in the country that make me think this is a moment where the stars are aligning. This has the potential to be a new era for education. And I’m incredibly optimistic about that.”

‘Things are getting better’

He welcomed the appointment of new Ofsted chief inspector Sir Martyn Oliver and the “tone he is setting” in response to the death of headteacher Ruth Perry. Oliver will launch a “big listen” consultation at ASCL’s conference today.

“I think the profession can move forward with some confidence that things are going to get better,” Di’Iasio says.

Education secretary Gillian Keegan and schools minister Damian Hinds have also signalled they want to “work with schools”, while opposition parties are “listening”.

He has also met civil servants, who he says “understand the challenges we’re facing”, notably in relation to provision for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities.

“I think we’ve gone from a period where perhaps, sometimes we’ve heard about green papers, white papers that have felt like they’ve been done to the profession.

“And what we’re moving into, I think, is a period in which there is an openness [and] an opportunity for people to consult and to give their views.”

But despite his optimism, the school funding crisis, crumbling buildings and recruitment and retention challenges are brought up frequently.

A day before our interview, he admits his own school had buckets out to catch leaks from ceilings. A planned £60 million rebuild “can’t come soon enough”.

He adds: “I heard [Sunak] speak about education being the closest thing we have to a silver bullet. Can you imagine how good that bullet would be if it was funded appropriately?”

And he says the failure of chancellor Jeremy Hunt to announce more school funding in this week’s budget “shows a lack of understanding of the pressures on public services right now”.

Two different Ofsted experiences

Born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, Di’Iasio’s father –  an Italian immigrant – and mother met in the restaurant trade. He grew up in “very difficult circumstances”, with the family surviving on tips.

His parents “made sure I took education seriously” and he passed the 11-plus, attending grammar school and sixth form. A keen footballer, he was working as a lifeguard when a friend suggested he become a PE teacher.

He trained at what was then Leeds Polytechnic and worked in schools in Doncaster before becoming head of Wales in 2012.

Just 29 days into his headship, Ofsted called. The school was rated ‘requires improvement’, with poor maths results to blame.

Di’Iasio had cut his teeth in some “very tough schools” in Doncaster, “so the thought of an RI didn’t worry me at all”.

“We rolled our sleeves up and the staff here pulled together, worked our socks off.” The school was declared ‘good’ within 18 months.

Last October, Ofsted called again, this time while Di’Iasio was in a packed event at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool to discuss school accountability.

He was back at his desk in Rotherham after lunch. The school retained its ‘good’ rating and was praised as “friendly and vibrant” with an “ambitious curriculum” and “skilful support” of pupils with SEND.

Di’Iasio then praised the “exemplary” inspection team, adding he was “impressed with the whole culture and the way in which they approached the inspection”.

“I’d have loved them to have recognised the school as ‘outstanding’. But the issue that we face, not dissimilar to many schools in the country, is that our vulnerable students, our pupil premium children, haven’t made the progress that we’d want them to.”

Vulnerable children will be ‘key theme’

Di’Iasio says a lack of support for the most vulnerable children would be a “key theme” while general secretary.

His own school faces difficult decisions. Its large on-site special school provision, which specialises in autistic spectrum disorder, runs at a deficit of £500,000 a year.

Although ministers’ proposed SEND reforms “resonate with what professionals are looking for”, he is critical of the “speed at which we’re getting there”.

Di’Iasio, who was seconded between 2018 and 2020 to Rotherham council as assistant director of education, slams the “bureaucracy” involved in obtaining care plans and voices fears for councils’ budgets.

Safety valve bailouts, meant for “extraordinary situations”, are becoming commonplace. Parents have to “fight tooth and nail” to get support, which heads can’t provide “because they haven’t got the funds, or the resources, or the specialist staff”.

“We’ve got to move from the model [of] looking at what we can provide with the amount of money we’ve got, to a model that is actually [about] the amount of money we need to do what is right, and what is legally and statutorily appropriate,” he says.

Funding for 16 to 19 education is also a “key area” of concern.

This week’s ASCL conference may be Barton’s swansong, but Di’Iasio will interview the education secretary today, and he hopes she will “recognise the great work of leaders”.

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