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Who governs our schools – leadership and autonomy in the emergent school-scape

Who governs our schools – leadership and autonomy in the emergent school-scape

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This is the seventh in a series of guest articles on the Modern Governor blog exploring the implications and themes of the RSA report Who governs our schools? written by Dr. Tony Breslin.

Dr Tony BreslinDr. Tony Breslin is a public policy analyst and writer, specialising in education, participation and the third sector. A teacher by profession and a former local authority education adviser, he is chair of the board of governors at Bushey Primary Education Federation and was, until Autumn 2016, chair of the Academy Council at Oasis Academy Enfield. He is also chair of the awarding body Industry Qualifications and a trustee of the charity, Adoption UK. You can contact Tony on Twitter at @UKPolicyWatch or via

Leadership and autonomy in the emergent school-scape

This is the seventh in a series of blogs on my recent RSA report, Who Governs Our Schools? Trends, Tensions and Opportunities; earlier blogs have provided the background to the report and explored the first four of our six key themes, Purpose and Participation, Induction and Development, Landscape and Policy, and Stakeholders and Experts. This week, I look at our fifth theme, Leadership and Autonomy. Next week, I’ll explore the final theme, Collaboration and Partnership.

On Leadership and Autonomy we posed the following questions:

  1. What might headship feel like in the emergent landscape?
  2. Does the emergence of MATs and federations change the dynamic between vision, strategy and operational management, especially at school level?
  3. What is the role of local authorities and dioceses in this new landscape?

From these questions, we generated the following headline

Whilst there are undoubtedly benefits to the kind of strong, formal school partnerships that a system based around federations, multi-academy trusts, umbrella trusts and other arrangements that cluster schools into groups might deliver, we need to understand the impact of this shift, locally and system-wide, especially in terms of the recruitment and retention of heads, senior leaders and governors. 

I have said much in earlier blogs in this series about the risks of ‘less local’ models of governance and the shift up-stream of governance powers to the MAT board (albeit that many of these are usually ‘gifted-back’ to local boards of some form – if not local governing boards – through schemes of delegation) and the associated risk of deskilling and emasculating the experience of ‘governorship’ at the local level. In particular, I have noted that, if these changes were to cause a 10% decline in the number of volunteer governors, the economic value of the loss to the English school system would be in the region of £120,000,000, not a resource to pass up easily when budgets are tight.

Here, I want to focus on the experience of headship in the new landscape, and the associated rise of executive leadership, usually in the form of executive headship in smaller MATs and federations or CEOs in larger MATs. These issues have profound implications for the way in which matters of vision, strategy and operational management interplay in the leadership of our schools and how we ‘do’ governance, especially local governance. Failure to understand these implications could exacerbate a shortage of school leaders that is already acute.

I’ll deal with the third question we posed ourselves – on the role of local authorities and similar locally-focused bodies – when I explore issues of collaboration and partnership next week.

The changing nature of headship: ‘clipped wings’ or just more collaborative?

Headship can be, as with any form of organisational leadership, a solitary role. However, modern headship is also incredibly exposed; headship combines a loneliness of leadership that any voluntary sector or business CEO will vouch for – I say that as a former charity CEO – with a level of public exposure that is rare in other roles or sectors. Performance tables, floor targets and inspection may produce the glamour of ‘Outstanding’ banners at some school gates but, equally, there is the abiding reality, that failure will feature even more loudly in the local paper and, in the current system, on the desk of the Regional Schools Commissioner. Perhaps this is why so many headship vacancies are now only filled at the second or third attempt.

In this respect, the move towards more formalized school partnerships could be a really positive development: school leaders, with expert advice and guidance on tap, working together in groups of schools – federations or MATs, or possibly local federations or ‘hubs’ within MATs – in a mutually supportive partnership rather than a competitive school versus school dogfight. However, for those currently in headship, this is a fundamental change to headship itself, and one that parallels the changes to governance discussed elsewhere in the report.

In short, in these MATs, federations and/or hubs headship may be less ‘lonely’ but this loss of loneliness – this new found support – arguably comes, at least in some settings, at a price: a loss of autonomy. In the academies age, the head may or may not have lost one form of line management, in the form of a volunteer chair of governors and a school-based board, but s/he has gained another, an employed line manager who may take the form of anything from an executive head in a modestly sized federation to a regional director, themselves answerable to a CEO, in a large MAT. Indeed, the ‘head’ at school based level may be designated as a headteacher or a head of school, these variations of title offering subtle messages about where in the hierarchy the individual sits, the extent of the responsibility and authority that s/he enjoys and the autonomy granted to their school.

This notion of headship as answerable through a management line rather than a governance one trades autonomy for support and passes at least some of those tasks currently handled by a volunteer board to a remunerated manager, usually a level further up the organisational hierarchy; as such, as I remark in the report, a form of paid governance has already arrived, albeit through a back door that nobody has noticed is ajar. Moreover, it is not just the governance of our schools that is moving up stream and away from the locality, so are their paid leadership and management functions.

There is a risk in all of this: even if the new supported, shared and line managed models of headship are more attractive to a wider number of candidates, they risk upsetting a proportion of those currently in post. For the latter group, headship wasn’t meant to come with a ‘boss’ in quite this way, and if some of this cohort resign before sufficient numbers of the next generation are ready to step up, we could be facing a difficult transitional period, and further shortages of school leaders.

The rise (and rise) of executive leadership: what are the implications for governance?

Recently, the DfE initiated work on a new qualification for educational leaders: the National Professional Qualification for Executive Leadership (NPQEL). Its title is a clue – and a wise one – to the range of school collaboration arrangements cited above and, with this, the range of executive leadership structures that there are likely to be. It is predicted that by the early 2020s there will be 6,000 executive leaders in schools, a tenfold increase on 2014, partly as a result of the policy impetus towards a system dominated by MATs, and partly driven by the more pragmatic need to fill vacancies; put bluntly, you may need one person to deliver the head’s responsibilities at each school, but you don’t need one executive head on each site.

The implications for governance are profound. Schools require charismatic, outward looking, visible leaders. Indeed, part of the very stuff of school governance is the healthy tension between the charismatic and passionate school leader and the sometimes necessarily cautious and less visible governing board. Hub, MAT and federation boards will need to be able to manage executive leaders with these qualities by the bucket-load, and school-based boards will need to work out what their relationship is with these leaders, which in turn will depend on where they sit in the structure. The regional director of a large MAT will sit significantly ‘above’ the local school board (although their role ought arguably to be to work alongside it), but the executive head of a much smaller MAT or federation, is likely to report to one or more boards.

And the very use of the term executive in the range of variations on this theme – that stretch along the continuum from executive head to CEO – indicates a more strategic leader, one that stands back from the daily detail, albeit one that will need to be smart on visibility. Too ‘hands on’ and they risk encroaching on the ground of the school-based leaders, insufficiently visible and, at least in smaller federations, the school community will wonder what they are there for (and what their taxes and school budgets are paying for); too strategic and the ground between the board and their executive leader may itself get clouded.

There are no right answers here. Individual groups of schools, and the appropriate board (at school, hub or MAT level) will need to fashion bespoke arrangements that ensure effective governance while getting the most out of highly skilled and experienced leaders. To some degree, the direction of travel will be defined by whether the need is for a CEO or an EHT, and where the latter is selected, whether the emphasis is placed on the ‘E’ in ‘Executive’ or the ‘T’ in Teacher. One thing is for sure: for boards the outcome to be avoided – as the recent histories of Kids Company, RBS and a number of fallen ‘super-heads’ illustrate – is a combination of weak governance and charismatic leadership. Therein chaos lies, and therein the case for effective governance is made.

Next week, in exploring our final theme, Collaboration and Partnership, I’ll be examining the values that our expert group argued must inform good governance, not just in our schools but across our education system and beyond. In these times of change, our shared values as governors are likely to be the strongest protection against poor governance that we have.

Questions for your governing board

For those working in a smaller federation or MAT (less than 10 schools)

  • Have we chosen to maintain local-school based boards or opted for a single board or fewer boards, and what was the reasoning behind our decision?
  • How would we describe the impact of this decision in terms of (a) the effectiveness of our governance, (b) our experience of governance, and (c) the level of ‘connection’ we have been able to maintain with individual schools?
  • Have these changes impacted on the experience of headship for those leading individual schools within the federation or MAT?

For those working in a larger MAT (10 or more schools)

  • What are the positives and negatives for those serving on local, school or school-cluster based boards or academy councils, if these exist, within our MAT?
  • What are the positives and negatives for school-based leaders working within our MAT?

For those working in a local authority maintained school or a stand-alone academy

  • Given the political pressure to take up academy status and to join a larger MAT, what do we see as the opportunities and challenges of doing so?
  • Are there any steps that we can take as a board to mitigate these risks?

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Image credit: Old Harry Rocks sunset by Wilf van Wingerden on Unsplash.

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