Among the activities to mark his final week as headteacher of King Edward VI School, Geoff Barton was given a community farewell at St Edmundsbury Cathedral.
It is a testament to the impact the maverick education leader has made during his 15 year tenure at the Bury St Edmunds school.
‘The school will benefit from a renewed sense of mission’
He has pushed the envelope of what a school can do - elevating its position in the community, forging international links including with Iraq, nurtured student leadership and challenged powerful organisations.
Geoff has won the top job at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) where he will use his experience from King Edward’s to support his peers across the country and influence Government policy.
With the majority of the town’s move to two tier education now complete and plans for a new sixth form on the horizon, Geoff says it is the ‘perfect time’ to hand the school over to his successor Lee Walker.
“I always knew 15 years was probably going to be the right time to finish because I didn’t want people to look back and I think he used to be good but he lost interest in the school,” Geoff explains.
“I haven’t lost interest in the school but I just sense the school will benefit from a renewed sense of mission.”
His final day as head today promises added poignancy as he will also teach his last ever lesson.
“That will be the last English lesson I will teach in a career of 31 years or so and that for me is going to be momentous. It probably won’t be for the kids, they will probably think thank goodness,” he laughs.
“I will be teaching an A-level group Othello and some poetry which is the kind of stuff I was doing when I started. That is bound to me to feel like the end of an era. I don’t know that I will be emotional but I will think ‘I’m going to miss this’.
“Although teaching brings with it the pressure of making sure you’re prepared, the marking is done and so on, it also brings the real privilege of passing knowledge and skills on to the next generation. I’m going to spend the rest of the day largely just walking around, going to lessons and doing the thing that I think school leaders should be doing which is reminding themselves of why they came into the business.”
When he walks down those corridors as they echo with memories, he may also look back on what he considers his three greatest achievements at the school.
When he started at King Edward’s, which was called from its early days Schola Buriensis (the School of Bury), the governors felt the school should build more links with the community.
“We have become very much an outward facing school some of which is because I agreed for example to go on the town centre management board in the early days and that got me known by the business community and we got lots of them coming to work with our students. We did a lot with the cathedral and strengthened our links there.
“The bit I’m most proud of is the international dimension because in this part of the world which can be quite insular, it helped youngsters to see they are going to be working alongside or competing with students from Shanghai or Iraq.”
The second accomplishment was that the school became a sports college, which exemplified student leadership across all areas of the curriculum and made sport more inclusive across the school with 1,000 students taking part in a sports festival.
“It gave us a lot of national attention and made sport something which was attractive and enjoyable for youngsters who might in the old days have not found it so,” he says.
Finally, he has also helped nurture the school leaders of the future.
“We’ve a lot of people in the leadership team who started here as newly qualified teachers.
“That’s a sign of the way we’ve developed the talent of the school and kept really good people working with youngsters at a time of definite political fragmentation both locally and nationally.”
Geoff has also risen to national prominence by standing up for those under his wing and being an outspoken critic of injustices in the education system.
He fought changes to GCSE grade boundaries in 2012 after scores of pupils expected to get a C in English were instead graded D.
That fighting spirit was forged at the start of his career as a ‘rookie’ English teacher at Garforth Comprehensive School, in Leeds, whose headteacher Lawrie Lowton taught him a vital lesson.
“What school leadership sometimes involves is digging your heels in over certain things because you want to defend the people you’re responsible for,” Geoff says.
For him, teachers and leaders should also be able to base the way they work on the areas that interest them.
“For example my interest in debating has benefitted a huge number of students, many of whom have now gone onto top universities using the skills they’ve learnt there.
“We owe it to students in a rather corporate world to show that teachers having enthusiasm for things and a life beyond the classroom, makes the life of school more quirky and interesting.”
He will be taking those values to the ASCL after being elected by a landslide as the general secretary of the union.
The ASCL made headlines recently when Education Secretary Justine Greening was jeered by members as she addressed the Government’s plans to set up more grammar schools.
Schools are also facing cuts to their budgets in a controversial overhaul of funding.
On his work ahead, Geoff says: “There are some things already out there which we would want to respond to. One is there simply isn’t enough money.
“Schools are going to be £3 billion short by 2020. We need to articulate to parents that that doesn’t mean just not buying a set of textbooks. It means that class sizes will go up, courses will be cut and teachers won’t be employed.
“I’m going to be representing grammar schools. This isn’t about existing grammar schools. This is about a Government that without due consultation, evidence base and at the risk of damaging social justice because it will be the poor areas that could be most damaged by this we have to articulate that this is a bad way to develop policy.”
However, he does not want to be remembered in the role as someone who plays the part of opposition to the Government.
What excites him is the chance to bring more great teachers into the profession, develop the next generation of school and college leaders and increase the diversity of school leadership.
But today it is the time to mark the end of an era at one of Bury’s top schools.
“I think we will look back on this short era in the school’s history and think that this a school which has remained true to its principles.
“We believe very strongly that irrespective of your background, if you come to this school you will have a good experience in the classroom but you will also have the enrichment in the arts, sport, debating, science club that in too many parts of the country parents would have to pay for.
“At a time when people knew I was going, to find that we are one of the most oversubscribed schools in Suffolk says a lot about how parents understand the value of the school and understand how those values are going to continue into the future.”