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Geoff Barton: ‘I won’t be wheeled out as yesterday’s man’

“I’m certainly not coming in to man the barricades for strike action,” Geoff Barton told me almost exactly seven years ago when I visited his school in Bury St Edmunds.

Ironically, in his final year as general secretary of the Association of Schools and College Leaders, he almost did exactly that.

Had it not been halted for a 6.5 per cent pay deal, the school leaders’ union’s historic ballot would almost certainly have passed tough thresholds for industrial action.

That pay dispute, conducted with what he says was an “extraordinary sense of discipline” by the four unions, is a proud achievement for Barton. It is also something that “probably strengthened the profession. It’s certainly strengthened ASCL”.

However, he still describes it as a “squalid period”, admitting “we didn’t get anywhere near the kind of deal which the profession would want”.

‘I was the storyteller’

It was ASCL’s support for members during the “most difficult bit” of the pandemic that was “probably” his proudest moment, he tells me as we sit down at a Westminster hotel ahead of his glitzy send-off on Tuesday in the House of Commons.

As schools faced “often contradictory” guidance, an “extraordinary team effort” from union staff kept members informed via Barton’s ubiquitous video briefings.

“I was the mouthpiece. I was the storyteller for all of that, but other people were picking and choosing which bits of the story needed to be told,” he says. “I think we’ll probably look back and think that was a defining moment for us.”

Before he made the surprise decision in 2016 to challenge ASCL council’s preferred candidate for general secretary, Barton was looking forward to retiring from a headship and travelling the country as an English and literacy consultant.

It is another irony, then, that he has just been appointed to lead an oracy commission for Voice 21, a charity co-founded by Peter Hyman, a senior aide to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

Labour wants to weave oracy throughout the curriculum, offering what Barton calls an “historical moment for this to cut through in a way that it wouldn’t otherwise”.

‘We need oracy commission to cut through’

“I think what I would hope we might be able to do, whether Labour gets in or not, for any incoming administration is say, ‘here are a number of quite practical policy proposals. Pick and choose the ones you want to do. We’ve done the thinking on your behalf’.”

The commission will be “short and punchy”, reporting by September in time to inform debate at the party conferences.

Barton, a keen DJ who is famous within the sector for presenting friends and colleagues with CD mixtapes, will record “loads and loads of audio” and build a library of interviews for the project.

He also believes the commission’s line-up – boasting names such as curriculum guru Christine Counsell and National Theatre boss Rufus Norris – means it will be “independent”.

“I didn’t want it having the same old faces there, the evangelists. If anything, to make it cut through, we need to have people who will give us some critical challenge to it.”

Barton, who insists he is “not retiring… just retiring from things I didn’t want to do anymore”, is coy about whether he would want to be more involved in Labour’s curriculum reforms.

He says there would be “projects which might come up”, but “I don’t want to be looking back”. Invitations to speak about his time at ASCL will be rejected.

He does not want to “line manage anyone ever again”, and insists there is “no way as someone who has taught a lesson seven years ago, I’m going to tell anyone how to teach”.

“A few people asked me if I want to be a governor or a trustee. Not really. It’s not my skillset. I don’t want to be wheeled out as yesterday’s man, talking about what education was like. So, we will wait and see.”

Williamson ‘dealt a very difficult card’

In his seven years, Barton has worked with eight education secretaries.

He wishes he had spent “longer working with Justine Greening”, who he describes as “very smart and very savvy”.

Damian Hinds continued her work on developing teachers’ early careers, before a “hamster wheel of just lots and lots of different people with varying levels of interest”.

Gavin Williamson

“People would assume Gavin Williamson was the hardest to work with,” Barton says, “but I think he was dealt a very difficult card by Number 10.

“And, at the very least, he was incredibly human and personable – and funny, actually.”

There was “something less tribal than, say, with the current secretary of state, who when you Google her, you know that she is essentially driven by the fact that she criticises the unions of Knowsley for the quality of her education”.

What is the best advice that he can give Pepe Di’Iasio, his successor?

“You have got members who are doing all kinds of roles in all kinds of institutions, in all parts of the UK, all of whom are paying a subscription where they want you as general secretary to be speaking on behalf of them.

“Therefore, my advice is to listen to the membership. Pepe is incredibly personable… you just see how people gravitate to him. He’s going to bring that authenticity.”

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