It’s a brave new world. We’re seeing a rapid move away from traditional models of leadership involving headteachers and deputy heads to a number of different, evolving models that include executive heads, MAT directors, Local Governing Groups, heads of school – the list goes on.
We’ve seen a blurring of lines. What were once clear, if slightly rigid leadership structures have now been replaced with something much more fluid. And as with anything new, that brings with it a testing of where those lines now are.
To declare my hand, I am one of the ‘higher ups’, currently an executive headteacher of three schools. In the early days – quite a few years ago, now – I spent a long time chewing over my impending change of role. As you might expect, the head of school and I discussed what our new leadership model should ideally look like, and asked ourselves how far away we were from realising it.
Less expected was the discussion subsequently had between our MAT Directors and the Local Governing Group…
Who’s the head?
When I first became an executive head six years ago, my head of school asked me a pointed question – ‘What exactly is an executive head?’ There wasn’t much difference between our job descriptions, except that the document outlining my role regularly mentioned the word ‘strategy’ throughout.
As we soon discovered (and I’m sure she won’t mind me sharing this), the distinction involved a delicate dance – one with the sole aim of not stepping on each other’s toes, whilst driving forward the ambitions of the school.
The simple truth is that the type of people who typically become exec heads are strong-minded leaders. They’re used to being the focus of the school, the figure upon whom everyone is pinning the school’s hopes and triumphs.
As an exec, however, you need to readjust that thinking. The head of school is now the figurehead, which means that as leaders, you’re now effectively co-leading. What this means in terms of changes will largely depend on the head of school’s skillset – which leads us to consider what the model ought to look like.
In an ideal world, the head of school should see the exec as a coach who can help them navigate their early steps into leadership. The exec should look to identify the head of school’s learning gaps – which will often involve budgets – and together, you should both be able to set the school’s long-term strategy.
Respect and tension
It might sound obvious to say that communication and mutual respect will be needed here, but both are essential. The head of school must be able to trust the exec head, but equally, any changes made to the school must be shared with the exec. It’s relatively easy to up-stage the executive head, since they’re only at the school for a percentage of the time (certainly no more than 50%, which leaves a lot of time to raise your profile).
For the model to work well, face-toface time is a must. There are some practical steps you can take to encourage this, such as sharing an office. Even if that means the visiting exec head has to sit in a corner with their laptop, it will still afford opportunities for both of you to casually chat, in addition to holding regular meetings. You could also change the sign on the door from ‘Headteacher’ to ‘Leadership Office’ or similar, to indicate unity of leadership.
Make sure that the head of school can be seen first in the leadership office, rather than the exec, however, as this will reinforce who the daily ‘in charge’ person is. See to it that you both carry out regular learning walks around the school together, to demonstrate that you’re a team sharing high standards.
That said, tension can be productive. A strong head of school will raise the game for everyone and eventually grow to become a headteacher in their own right. If the executive head has done their job well, then new school leaders should emerge. At this point, the head of school can apply for a more substantive position, or the executive head can step away and allow the head of school to carry on as the substantive headteacher. There are cases where exec heads oversee the work of headteachers, but these tend to be rare.
It would be lovely if this was all as transparent in practice as it sounds, but sadly, egos are funny things. The final point to therefore make is that ‘hard honesty’ is critically important. The fundamental goal of every school is to ensure that every individual child receives the best possible education afforded to them. The egos of leaders should never get in the way of that.
Who’s the governor?
At this point, it’s vital to understand what the term ‘executive head’ actually means. Legally, it refers to a CEO, but some organisations are so large that they have CEOs and exec heads. Confused? Well, the governorship of MATs is itself quite confusing. Ultimately, it’s a MAT’s directors (AKA ‘governors’) who will hold the CEO accountable. MATs may enjoy large freedoms, but they’ll also want to demonstrate that they’re meeting local need. In the early days of the academies system there was a temptation among some to create ‘MAT franchises’ – i.e. a MacDonald’s-esque, ‘one strategy fits all’ approach – but this has since been largely discouraged.
As a result, Local Governing Groups (LGGs) have come to play an increasingly essential role as monitoring eyes and ears for their school and champions of what it does. Strictly speaking, LGGs hold no power at all – all decision-making power lies with those MAT directors – but ‘earned autonomy’ is an increasingly favoured approach when it comes to school oversight.
Put simply, if an LGG is effective, it can earn autonomy from the MAT’s central directors. This might outwardly appear a bit patronising, but the reality is that the final buck stops with the Directors, who must be able to have confidence in their LGG. By growing a strong LGG, a school can effectively give itself an effective mechanism for challenging weak governors.
For heads of school and local governors, this new approach is one that arguably has a singular purpose – that of nurturing good leadership. As school leaders proceed to demonstrate their capabilities, their executive heads and directors can afford to move away and become more distant, whilst still making themselves available during times of need. At its best, it’s an approach that will benefit the school as a whole and raise expectations all round.
Anthony David is an experienced headteacher, executive headteacher and educational writer and speaker