Working across more than one setting is becoming increasingly more common. There’s been a national qualification for several years in one form or another, LAs and Dioceses across the country run localised versions and it’s become the favoured way of managing clusters of schools by several larger MATs.
So what’s it like? Why bother with the stress, unless there’s something in it for you?
To get pragmatic, none of us joined the education profession for the money. If you did, you’re in the wrong job. There has to be some other reason for you wanting be an executive headteacher, and often it will have developed organically – you were given the opportunity to grow something new, and the safest way to do that was to hold on to your current job.
I’ve spent most of my leadership career running more than one setting, and on two occasions it was because I’d been asked to develop a new site. This sort of executive leadership is akin to parenting; you’ve birthed a new school and feel emotionally very tied to both it and the parent school you started at.
That’s natural, and will possibly be the most exciting opportunity you’ll have come across in your career. What follows can almost feel like walking for the first time. You’re not sure how your role will change, but you know that it will.
The most notable of those changes will affect your relationship with staff and pupils, particularly in the new setting if you’re growing from your first. You won’t have the same closeness that you likely enjoy at the moment, which can take some adjusting to. A head will often pride themselves on knowing the name of every staff member, pupil and most parents.
Once you’ve crossed the threshold of managing more than 600 pupils and 100 staff at different locations, you’ll have to reconcile yourself to not knowing every name, let alone knowing about their lives, how they tick and so forth. Your role has become more strategic and less human.
Note that I don’t mean that in a cold, robotic way – simply that you’ll struggle to manage human problems, particularly with low level concerns from parents, that persistent child who requires a bit of TLC on a daily basis or the staff member confiding that they’ve just separated from a partner. If you’re socially geared up, then you may find this loss costly.
In this case, if you’re given the choice between assuming the role of exec or head, then perhaps choose head. The pay is typically the same (particularly since high profile media stories in recent years have caused salaries to adjust down from what used to be dizzying six figure salaries), and you get to throw all of your energy into one project.
Sometimes you won’t have a choice, because your school can no longer afford a hefty head’s salary and has decided that the best approach will be to share its costs and expertise with another local school. In which case, how should you allocate your time?
Firstly, decide when you’re going to be at each site and be consistent about it. If you’ve resolved to be at site X on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, then stick to that. Remember that you now represent more than the well-known headteacher role – arriving unexpectedly may throw people, particularly your head of school!
Also be clear with what you intend to do, because if you’re not careful you could easily find yourself rattling around. Your fundamental job is to drive forward standards, which means attending pupil review meetings, particularly in the first instance. The more you understand your schools and trust your staff, the less you’ll need to be involved – but until you reach that wonderful stage, don’t skimp on the meetings.
Next, set clear and agreed targets with the leadership. Again, it’s your job to be ambitious and push colleagues beyond their comfort zone. Come inspection time, it’ll ultimately be your head that’s on the block if you can’t evidence improvement in standards.
You are the saving
Budgeting is often an aspect of school leadership that aspiring heads are wary off, but you shouldn’t be. It’s really no more than than an extended version of what you likely do with your home budget already, albeit with the vast majority of your finances taken up with staffing.
In the early days, executive heads would have ambitions of managing staff across several schools, such as a school business manager or SENCo. The truth, however, is that this isn’t necessarily that easy or straightforward. Circumstances change, and you may well find that you’ve created a short term solution rather than saved your budget. Remember, it’s you that’s the main saving for that school.
Also, don’t treat your various budgets as all part of one single pot – they’re still needed to manage the schools they were originally allocated to! What you do have now, though, is buying power that will save you money time and again. Not just via bulk purchasing, but also in terms of how you can now negotiate your spending on hefty supply teacher and NQT recruitment costs.
Eyes and ears
Staff development is critical. In my experience, the most important of your staff roles is head of school – they’re our eyes and ears, but also the most likely to leave and become headteachers themselves, if you’ve trained them well enough! This is important, since we’re still witnessing a national shortage of heads with the result that growing leaders is now arguably a national need.
A good head of school should eclipse you, after which you should be encouraging them to find their first school. And thus the cycle begins again.
The final point I’d make is that I’m not entirely convinced ‘executive headship’ should be a permanent fixture. Once a school is up and running, you may find yourself asking whether you’ve done your job and outstayed your welcome. If you feel this to be the case, then bow out quietly and gracefully. There are plenty of other schools out there that need your support.
Anthony David is an experienced headteacher, executive headteacher and educational writer and speaker.