Interview with headteacher Geoff Barton

Interview with headteacher Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton (pictured with members of his Student Leadership Team) became headteacher of King Edward VI School, in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, in 2002. Now a 13 to 18 Church of England comprehensive with more than 1400 pupils on its roll, it is a school with a long history. Founded in 1550, it was only the second King Edward VI School in the country. Today, the school has a strong commitment to encouraging its students to embrace other countries and cultures through its international leadership programme.

Here Geoff Barton, a keen commentator on education via social media (as @RealGeoffBarton), tells agenda about his own career and the challenges he faces as a headteacher. 

What has been your path into your current role?
Not a startlingly original one, I fear. English teacher in Leeds (1985), Second-in-English, Head of English in York (1990), Deputy Head in Suffolk (1997), Headteacher in Suffolk (2002).

What do you like about working in the field of education?
That’s easy – I like working with young people. I love their optimism, their humour. I’m also reminded constantly of the privilege of working with great teachers. I never lose the thrill of observing an expert explaining their subject, making the complicated simple and yet not too simple. So: students and teachers – it’s what makes schools such sanctuaries against the madness outside.

Who do you admire in your field?

Lots of people. My career has been illuminated by people I’ve worked with directly (great leaders like Lawrie Lowton, John Baumber, Keith Wragg, David Edwards) and people whose work I have admired from afar or through their writing (Michael Marland, Sir Anthony Seldon, Mick Waters). Was your own experience of education a positive one and what lessons did you learn from it? Not really. Like many of my generation, my experience of school is that it wasimpersonal and dull. I hoped to escape at 16 by becoming Radio One’s next breakfast DJ. That didn’t quite happen and I drifted into the Sixth Form where a quite brilliant English teacher, Roy Samson, inspired me to read, then study, then teach. I still see him and my gratitude to him for unwittingly kick-starting my career trajectory is enormous.

What do you do when – if – you have time off?
I read a lot. I cook. I write stuff. Oh, and I have an unexpected collection of more than 50,000 American radio jingles that I occasionally listen to while reading, cooking or writing.

If you weren’t a teacher, what would you be?
I’d love to be head waiter in a good restaurant. I love the attention to detail, the need to keep an eye out for what’s happening, the responsibility for managing a team and dealing with complaints.

What are the greatest challenges faced by schools such as your own over the next five years?
Staying true to our values about what great schools should be. I know from all the international work our school is involved in that our education system and our leadership are the envy of much of the world. Many of our state schoolsdo an extraordinary job in unspeakably challenging circumstances against a pervasive political and media narrative that we are hopeless, hapless or incompetent. We must keep a real sense of what matters in our schools – achievement AND deep enrichment – and not be deterred or distracted.

As a headteacher, how do you know when you are doing a good job?
You see it in what’s going on – a teacher leading a brilliant training session, a lesson in which students and the teacher arelost in the process of exploring skills and knowledge, the tiny details around the school that exemplify the school’s ethos and values, the sense of an organisation at ease with itself, unbowed, ambitious, restless to keep developing.

What achievement are you proudest of?
Our international partnerships have surprised me in their depth and impact. I am writing this in the eighth year of visits to and from Shanghai by our students and those of our partner school. Being invited as a result to be the first UK school to take students to Kurdistan was an extraordinary and inspiring experience. Ours is a small, white, inward-looking part of the world: we owe it to our students to show them a wider world. It is the dimension of our school culture that has made the biggest impact, I suspect.

If you were stuck in a lift with a government minister what three things would you ask for on behalf of your school?
1/ That she comes and looks at a real community school and sees what is happening – it’s not about structures, labels, gimmicks. It’s about recruiting great teachers and letting them fly. The Government should be helping us to do that, not distracting us.

2/ That the distinctive features of our schools are celebrated more – the commitment to extra-curricular work, to moral and spiritual development, to developing student and staff leadership.

3/ I’d remind her that politicians come and go. The best legacy would be ‘we helped schools to help themselves get better’ not to believe that improvement can be mandated from the bunker of Whitehall.

This article appears in the Autumn issue of OCR's agenda magazine.

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