We’ve recently (February 2017) completed cohort 2 of our ‘Aspiring Executive Headteacher Programme‘, a highly successful, thought provoking professional learning event that has facilitated deep personal and professional reflection. To date, twenty-five headteachers, some of whom have already transitioned to executive leadership, have attended the five-day programme which has involved close partnership working between Exceed Academies Trust (@exceedacademies), Wellspring Academy Trust (@wellspringAT), Exceed SCITT and Teaching Schools Bradford (@exceedtsa), and Education Teaching Alliance Lewisham (@eta_lewisham). Consisting of sharing the professional journey of well established, highly successful Executive Headteachers, the programme has provided high-potential school leaders with an insight into, in some cases, the progression of schools from an ‘inadequate‘ inspection outcome to ‘outstanding‘, whilst considering the pivotal roles of an Executive Headteacher and Head of School along the way. In total, the partipants have worked with three Executive Headteachers, seven Heads of School, and visited six schools in both Bradford and Lewisham.
The executive model provides Heads of School (the headteacher of the school below the executive headteacher) another professional to work closely with. The Executive Headteacher is a sounding board, someone to offer reassurance, someone to challenge perspectives, someone (on rare occasions) to step in to help avoid an error in judgment. Heads of School are Headteachers, they are responsible on a day-to-day basis for their school, often with a more in-depth focus on teaching and learning than might otherwise be possible, a huge benefit of this leadership model. The Executive Headteacher often brings a more holistic view of the education system, providing a longer term strategy for school improvement across a partnership of schools.
This partnership between the Executive Headteacher and Head of School brings a wealth of advantages, too, including the ease of sharing practice and experience between schools to the benefit of all (especially the children and young people). Academisation, personnel issues, long-term school improvement (such as the growth of a Teaching School or school centred initial teacher training (SCITT)), and a whole host of other considerations fall under the remit of the Executive Headteacher. This leadership model adds capacity. Under the traditional Headteacher role, having to lead these strategic and the day-to-day operational elements as the sole, accountable leader is a huge task. Many great senior leaders, perhaps, avoid the step up to headship to avoid the ultimate accountability in an education system that has changed so much in recent years (decades), along with a reduced focus on the classroom (the passion of most leaders). Perhaps more would become Headteacher if they had the additional capacity of an Executive Headteacher working alongside them and fulfil head of school role which may focusing more on teaching and learning.
Understanding of the Head of School role is not consistent in the education system. The Head of School role may be seen by some as as being at a level lower than that of an outright Headteacher. This needs to be reconsidered, as some schools and individuals may be missing out on a fantastic leadership model built on peer support and helps avoid isolation at the top. Headteachers can support each other, but its not the same as both parties, the Head of School and Executive Headteacher, having ownership of the school(s) they lead. Executive leadership may not be for everyone or for every school. But, its a model with many advantages that could be considered more widely. The aspiring Executive Headteachers have seen successful models in action. Each executive leader has their own model and approach, each highly successful in their own schools, partnerships, and contexts.
For some, the executive model can also support the Executive Headteacher’s transition to CEO of a multi-academy trust and the development of opportunities for the Heads of School to become Executive Headteachers within the same MAT in time. They can drawn upon their own experiences to support heads of school in sponsored schools in the same way they they benefited from the executive model. Small schools (often in rural areas) and some faith schools in particular face challenges in recruiting headteachers. Perhaps the executive model presents opportunities here, too, for those schools facing such challenges. It might not be the solution for everyone or every school, but perhaps it should be considered more widely.
So, what have the participants of the ‘Aspiring Executive Headteacher Programme‘ taken away from it? The list is long. Here are a few of the key points (in no particular order):
- An understanding that being an Executive Headteacher doesn’t mean your headteacher of two or more schools. You can’t be. The Head of School is the public face of the school, for example, dealing with parents, taking assemblies, etc.
- An Executive Headteacher can’t split their time evenly between their schools. They have to go to where they are needed. Of course, they have to maintain frequent contact with each Head of School and the school as a whole, but sometimes this is a phone call, email or text. They need to be accessible, but they can’t be everywhere all the time (and the Head of School probably doesn’t want them looking over their should every two minutes!)
- Each school is different. They need to be supported and challenged in different ways. This is potentially exciting for an Executive Headteacher as each school they lead brings fresh challenges.
- Heads of School have suggested that they take greater calculated risks for the benefit of the school, rather than being risk adverse in order to avoid the workload that might come from making an error. The support, and challenge, of the Executive Headteacher seems to give them a more positive view point when making decisions that they feel will, if successful, benefit the school significantly. The potential outcome is greater than the risk.
- A confidence in their own school. Having visited five ‘outstanding‘ schools, the aspiring Executive Headteachers have grown in confidence about the quality of their own provision. They can seem similarities or opportunities to enhance their own provision. Perhaps in the future some of them will be ‘fighting‘ for an ‘outstanding‘ outcome to their next inspection.
- An understanding of the increased capacity in the school’s leadership. If there was a disaster, for example, and the Head of School was out of action for a period of time, the executive headteacher can immediately step in to the operational role (short term) until the leadership model can be restored.
- The participants have increased confidence in their own senior leaders (and staff as a whole). Many of the leaders have registered their ‘aspiring Heads of School‘ to work with Exceed SCITT and Teaching Schools and its partners or a similar programme aimed at building a consistency in understanding the executive leadership model throughout the senior leadership team. An Executive Headteacher needs their heads of school to understand each stakeholders’ role and remit, and the rationale of the model.
- It’s flattering to be approached by, for example, a local authority to take on an executive leadership post for the first time. This makes it hard to say ‘no‘. The aspiring executive headteachers increasingly considered the terms and conditions they’d require to take on such a role. Some delegates had taken the step up to Executive Headteacher but found there was little or no support for them upon being appointed. Some felt that upon their agreement to undertake the role, the organisation making the approach felt that their job was done. The aspiring executive headteachers need support to address the issues they face, with difficult to address issues requiring support to overcome (such as addressing governance issues). Without the appropriate support structures in place, the performance of all the new executive headteachers schools are put at risk.
- The geographical location of schools is an important consideration. The executive headteacher needs to be able to get to their schools quickly and easily. Some Executive Headteachers shared their challenges where a journey of an hour or more impacted on themselves and the effectiveness of the model.
- This model isn’t just a positive career next step for the headteacher becoming an Executive Headteacher; it’s a step up for the Deputy Headteacher (and others) who become a Head of School. The aspiring Head of School also needs support and training (hence, in our case, the successful regional funding application for a ‘Stepping Up‘ programme funded by the DfE outlined above). Within weeks of offering this new programme, cohort 1 was sold out. In March 2017, twenty-four aspiring heads of school will begin the programme. Bookings for summer and autumn 2017 cohorts are being taken.
- Accessing a support like the ‘Aspiring Executive Headteacher Programme‘ helps takes away the fear factor of taking on such responsibility through adding context to what the leadership model could look like. It deepens participants understanding of the role and widens their views and experiences. For some, they feel ready for the role, others need more time (and provenance), others know its may not be a role for them. Each is a successful outcome. All have greater confidence in themselves and their schools and understand the conditions they’d need in order to consider such a role.
- Executive Headteachers need provenance (including pupil outcomes) and capacity below them in the ‘home‘ school.
- The programme has demystified less common job titles.
This programme has be vital in supporting the headteachers to take the next step in their career, whether this is to become an Executive Headteacher or not (they are now well informed to make the decision). For some, becoming an executive headteacher will be a positive next step and will help improve schools. But, this will not be effective unless organisations provide the support the leader needs and be prepared to use their informal and formal powers of intervention, if required in extreme circumstances. All stakeholders need the learning of these aspiring headteachers to be well understood to help avoid unsustainable solutions to improving school leadership being implemented. Executive leadership has been proven to be a highly effective solution – where the right conditions were in place. Lewisham is an interesting example of this, where the majority of schools have an Executive Headteacher.
The aspiring Executive Headteachers explored the growth of executive leadership in a more considered/planned manner, too. This included direct approaches to governing bodies that faced recruitment challenges and/or where it was logical for an executive model to be developed, e.g. as the Executive Headteacher of a primary schools and its neighbouring feeder nursery school. At this point, the leaders are more in control of the model and it becomes sustainable, more financially viable, and of even greater impact.