Education: From staffroom to boardroom

15 February 2019

Anthony David on the rise of the executive head

THINK of a school, and what comes to mind — excited pupils, teachers at the front of the class, bright displays, a head teacher?

Wait a minute. Something is missing from this picture: the head teacher. Slowly, quietly, there has been a revolution in school leadership over the past ten years which has changed how schools are led. Enter the executive head teacher.

What exactly is an executive head? I asked this very question when, in 2014, I found myself stepping up to this position when I opened a new school in London. For advice, I approached the head teachers’ union (NAHT), a few CEOs of multi-academy trusts, and ex­­isting executive heads.

The response was interesting, and should not have surprised me: there is no mould for an executive head. Each example was radically different from the last. Some ran two schools, and, as such, acted very much like a standard head teacher across both. Others ran small clusters, and considered themselves more as advisers and mentors for the leadership team. Others had grown clusters of schools, and were so far removed from anything to do with operational management of schools that they were, in effect, a CEO.

My first school (and one I still think of as my school) is nearly 200 years old. Being a church school, it has impressive records that date back to when it opened, in 1833. In all that time, there has never been an executive head: I am the first. It was always one school, one head.

 

I HAVE had the good fortune to travel around the world, and even in countries as diverse as Uganda and the United States the same Georgian model exists: one school, one head. Why is this new model so different from the past?

The drive for change has come from recruitment and funding. Unlike our friends in Finland (typically number one in the world for education), where most teachers have a Ph.D., and there is community-wide respect for educationists underpinned by the govern­ment’s commitment to funding education, teaching in Britain is constantly under scrutiny. I do not just mean by our friends in OFSTED, but by the media, politicians, and parents.

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This intense scrutiny demands a thick skin and rare interpersonal skills. Quite rightly, ambitious governors lead our schools, but the reality is that, with more than 20,000 schools in this country, we do not have the systems in place to create 20,000 exceptional heads. As about ten per cent leave after just one year in post, affecting approximately 2000 schools a year, a recruitment crisis was inevitable.

Ten years ago, as we hit the sharp end of this crisis, the reality hit home. There were too many examples of schools, particularly church schools in rural settings, where governors had to advertise repeatedly. Not only was this a waste of time and resources, it was destabilising for schools. At this point, schools started to consider sharing a leader. The executive was born.

Recruitment is still a challenge today. Another driving factor is budget. As I reported a few months ago, church schools are sitting at the edge of a precipice in terms of budget (Feature, 28 September 2018). The Department for Education has made it clear that it does not see one-form-entry schools (or smaller) as financially viable — a naïve or arrogant stance, given that this type of school makes up nearly a half of all schools.

Either way, the bottom line is that schools are struggling to afford the high costs that come with an experienced head teacher. How can this cost be reduced? Share it with another school. The argument, in this case, is that schools can retain the staff they currently have while sharing the benefits of a good head teacher. It takes them one step back from the precipice.

 

THERE were mistakes in the early days. Some heads suffered from burnout. But, as we have gone along, we have understood the job better. In most instances, the executive head will lead strategy — matters such as recruitment, budget, and premises — while a head of school is responsible for its day-to-day running, safeguarding, and curriculum.

“Hang on,” the cry goes up. “Isn’t that a head teacher’s job?” Yes, it is. The difference in this model, however, is that there the head of school enjoys the benefits of being a head teacher without the final accountability. That falls to the executive head.

Does this model work? As with all things, the answer varies. In some instances, the model works for a certain period of time, until one of the schools is up and running, and is able to stand on its own feet. In others, it is part of a strategic, long-term plan where the view is to replace the executive head with another ambitious leader when the current one leaves.

In my experience, I found it was invaluable in developing new leaders. Good heads of school should look at this as a stepping stone towards headship.

During five years of executive headship, I was able to grow five heads of school, two of whom have gone on to become successful head teachers. Who knows what their future in education may be? But, having seen the executive model at work, I would not be surprised if they went on to become executive heads as well.

Recruitment and budget have driven this new model, but the capacity to lead bigger groups should not be overlooked. No school wants to lose a gifted leader. Talk to anybody involved in education, either a pro­fessional or a parent, and he or she will be quick to tell you that the thing that sets the tone for the school is the head. Lose a gifted head, and you risk losing the reputation of the school.

In the modern world, where there is a mixed economy of education providers — voluntary aided, faith, academy, free, or state — there is arguably room for a mixed economy of leadership. It might not be here for the long term, but conditions are right for executive head teachers now.

 

Anthony David is executive head teacher of two one-form-entry C of E primary schools in north London.

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