New ASCL boss: ‘T Levels are not the only answer’

Pepe Di'Iasio speaks to FE Week as he prepares to take over at leaders' union

Pepe Di'Iasio speaks to FE Week as he prepares to take over at leaders' union

Pepe Di’Iasio wants to kick off his tenure as Association of School and College Leaders 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 school teachers will get a miserly pay rise in September and two teaching unions are already holding preliminary strike ballots. Staff in colleges across the country meanwhile continue their battle for fair pay through their own strikes, with the gap between them and their school counterparts sitting at £9,000. 

Could Di’Iasio, who himself voted to strike in last year’s historic schools 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.” 

Leaders doing ‘bloody good job’ 

Despite a desperate situation on funding and pay, Di’Iasio remains “optimistic about the future” and wants leaders, 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 and colleges. 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. Around 500 of those members are college leaders. 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 and colleges. 

“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 her ministers have also signalled they want to “work with” education providers, 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 and college funding crisis and recruitment and retention challenges are brought up frequently. 

‘T Levels are not the only answer’

Di’Iasio’s biggest concern for his further education members, aside from continued underinvestment, is the government’s level 3 reforms that could spell the end of BTECs.

He says his school, which has a sixth form, tried to get involved in teaching engineering T Levels as Sheffield has a rich history in the trade.

“But it became so clear that was going to be really difficult for us to do,” he explains. “We walked away from it, because we felt we weren’t able to offer high quality provision here.”

Di’Iasio says he’s not convinced that T Levels going forward are the “only answer”, adding that schools, colleges, students and employers need a range of vocational qualification options at level 3.

He speaks of the “worry” in education about the future of BTECs which are at risk of being defunded alongside other applied general qualifications under the current government’s level 3 reform plans.

“We’re at a point now where we’re seeing the potential for that and seeing that on the horizon. And you start to worry about the offer for young people.”

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