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In the third of a regular research insights page, Pippa Lord and Jennie Harland, researchers from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), present key findings that shed light on the emerging role of the executive headteacher. More
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In the third of a regular research insights page, Pippa Lord and Jennie Harland, researchers from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), present key findings that shed light on the emerging role of the executive headteacher.
Executive headteachers (EHTs) form an increasingly important part of the school leadership landscape. As more schools join multi-academy trusts (MATs) and other multiple-school arrangements, EHTs can help provide additional strategic capacity and oversight required to manage a group of schools. However, as our recent research found, EHTs also look outwards beyond their group of schools, they coach and develop aspirant leaders, and they take an expansive approach to improving pupil outcomes. They are strategic, yet focused ultimately on supporting their pupils to achieve success.
Who are they and where are they based?
Analysis of the School Workforce Census (SWC) and Edubase shows that there are more than 620 EHTs working in at least 970 schools in England (2015 data) (http://bit. ly/2fYUKZR). Numbers have increased by 240% since 2010. However, the way that this information is currently recorded means that it is unlikely that all EHT posts are registered on the SWC or Edubase. At a glance, EHTs (according to 2015 data) are:
- experienced senior leaders – previous headteachers and those with Masters and PhD level qualifications
- based in academies more than in the maintained sector
- working in the secondary phase in greater proportions than in the primary phase, although EHT posts are growing rapidly in the primary sector
- under-representative of women when compared with the number of women in the headteacher population
Why have or appoint an executive headteacher?
The EHT role has evolved in response to local circumstances, leading to multiple profession-led definitions of the role in practice. Our research, and that of others, suggests that this seems to have been important in the self-improving system – allowing EHTs to emphasise, for example, improvement, partnership or transition work to varying degrees depending on local context (see our wider literature review http://bit.ly/2gjQh8h). Indeed, our research found that there is more than one kind of executive headteacher, including:
- the improvement executive – to turn around schools and focus on rapid improvement
- the school expansion executive – to oversee large multi-school/ multi-phase sites and focus on management capacity and resource efficiencies
- the partnership executive – to build partnerships between schools and focus on increasing collaborative capacity
These broad definitions chime with the DfE’s vision for the best leaders having a “greater role across more schools, and spreading success for the benefit of more children than ever” (Educational Excellence Everywhere, DfE, 2016). Importantly, we found that across all these roles (which are not mutually exclusive), EHTs focused on more than just strategic or executive roles – they were ultimately focused on improving pupil outcomes. We interviewed 12 EHTs and many spoke about having both a top-down or ‘helicopter’ perspective on strategy, and an expansive and grounded approach to pupil outcomes – for instance, by understanding deeply their pupil communities or by sharing expertise with another school. Their pupils were key:
“I work at the bottom of an inverted pyramid with the students at the top of the pyramid. They are the most important people in the school. The inverted pyramid must therefore be strong, well-balanced and very stable.”
“It is important to not get into the stereotypical swanning around attitude, and be grounded in what the role actually is. It is about finishing the working day with a positive answer to the questions: ‘What have I done which will have an impact on the children and what will these children do?’ ” (Executive Headteachers, NFER/Future Leaders Trust (FLT)/National Governors Association (NGA) study 2016)
What makes their role distinctive?
So what is the “new and different mix of skills and experience” (Educational Excellence Everywhere, DfE, p.42) required to be the kind of strategic leaders the school system needs?
Our study found that executive headteachers have the same kinds of skills as headteachers, but that they tend to: have higher levels of strategic thinking, have the ability to coach aspirant leaders, ensure consistency and collaboration across their partnership and demonstrate a capacity to look outwards. They need to balance driving change themselves, with achieving change through others. They also need to address challenges such as the division of strategic and operational leadership with their heads of school and the needs of multiple schools and ensure that there are clear lines of accountability within large organisational structures. Diagram 1 outlines the core roles and skills we identified and that are echoed elsewhere in the literature (for example, http://bit.ly/2g07eEg and http://bit.ly/2fjYxkJ).
Progressing to the role
Aspiring executive headteachers identified a number of development areas that would help them prepare for an EHT role, including: further experience of headship/leadership in a range of contexts including large MATs, working directly with governors/trustees and needing to develop business/financial skills. The EHTs in our study had found a range of qualifications and continuing professional development (CPD) useful preparation for executive headship, including, for example: NPQH, National Leaders of Education (NLE), Local Leaders of Education (LLE), experiences as an Ofsted inspector or school improvement consultant, and joining EHT networks and training programmes.
The self-improving school system is creating complex governance structures to support itself. Such a system requires an increase in leadership capacity within groups of schools. The EHT role offers the potential to help meet this need. Our research reveals a need for greater clarity about the EHT role(s), so that existing executive headteachers, CEOs, aspirant headteachers, school governing boards and trusts can be clearer about what the EHT role can help achieve, and why they may appoint at this level.
The role is still evolving, and so it is important to continue to ask who our effective executive headteachers are, what makes them successful, how more women can be encouraged to consider the role and what other support is needed to further develop this role within the wider leadership system.
About the research
The research is a culmination of a collaborative project by NFE R, the FLT and the NGA. The research was based on a review of job application packs, an analysis of School Workforce Census data, and in-depth case studies. The main report ‘Executive Headteachers: What’s in a name?’ and other outputs can be accessed online at http://bit.ly/2fYKiD5