In 2002 I was appointed as head of a school which, at the time, had a multitude of issues that needed addressing. It took three years to move us up to ‘good’, and another three to reach ‘outstanding’.
I subsequently worked with other schools as part of the London Challenge, becoming a national leader of education in the process, and was then involved in a partnership that formed the basis of what’s now STEP Academy Trust.
My professional journey involved going from headteacher to executive headteacher over two schools, and then leading a MAT that’s steadily grown to include 14 academies across two geographical areas.
For ‘accidental CEOs’ such as myself, who have grown into the role, there are major challenges which won’t apply to someone appointed from a business background.
It’s perhaps less of an issue for secondary heads, who’ll often be running fairly large organisations already – but for a primary head used to 450 kids and 50 staff, suddenly finding yourself leading a £20 million organisation with 500 to 600 staff involves a major mental shift.
The level of accountability is much greater, as is the impact of failing to deliver. That said, there are certain attributes you develop as a primary head that will really help.
Most successful primary headteachers will be thoroughly grounded in the mission and values of their school, good at communicating them and able to ensure that everyone within the school connects with each other. When developing a MAT, it’s crucial that the Trust’s mission and values are clear – because quite often in MATs, they won’t be.
We were among the first MATs, converting in 2011, and for those first three years there was little guidance, support or sharing of practice with others.
It was eventually recognised by the DfE that some training and support was needed for former heads in my position, and the course I attended proved pivotal for my development. I consider myself an introvert.
I don’t like presenting to large groups of people and much prefer one-to-one conversations. I was used to assemblies and parents’ meetings, but addressing conferences attended by 200 other MAT CEOs is a whole other ball game. The anxiety is something I’ve struggled with, but I’ve learnt how to manage it.
Talking to other CEOs, it’s quite a diverse grouping, but there are recurring traits – imposter syndrome is quite common. It’s hard to grow and develop a MAT to the size we are or bigger if you’ve not previously been a head, but I believe that’s changing.
There are now established and successful MATs which may soon be led by a new generation of leaders from outside the profession.
Personally, I recognised that for STEP to be successful, I had to improve – though STEP’s success has ultimately been more about the team we’ve assembled, how they operate and the devotion they have. It’s a journey I feel privileged to have been on.