Executive headship: A changing landscape

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
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A new national network has been set up for executive headteachers. As more and more are appointed, Fiona Aubrey-Smith looks at the challenges of this emerging role in education

Over the last five years the number of executive headteachers has nearly trebled, particularly in the case of primary schools and academies, which make up more than two-thirds of the schools who have an executive headteacher.

Whereas five years ago an executive headteacher had an average of two schools within their portfolio, this has been slowly increasing with a national average now of four schools and some with portfolios extending beyond half a dozen and spanning across primary and secondary phases and types of need to include special schools, PRUs, children's homes, whole clusters, Teaching School Alliances, multi-academy trusts and all variety of partnership models.

Garry Ratcliffe, executive headteacher of the Galaxy Federation, explained: "There are so many different models of leadership and so many different networks and partnerships that finding someone operating in a similar context to your own can be difficult for many leaders. It depends on using your own networks and contacts – which for those newer to the role, and for those who are intentionally looking for a national contact further afield than their own area – can be a huge challenge."

In this context, there is a huge pressure on the individual executive headteacher leading a portfolio of schools, and even the most inspirational, innovative and positive of headteachers recognises that there are huge challenges ahead.

It is little wonder then that a group of executive headteachers from schools across the country have come together to establish a national network aiming to specifically meet the needs of those in executive headship roles – a network of system leaders who hold strategic responsibility for more than one community of learning.

The National Executive Headteacher Network is chaired by John Camp, who has a role leading four primary schools and an all-through special school in Greenwich, alongside leading the Royal Greenwich Teaching School Alliance. He explained: "We want to share and facilitate meaningful professional learning experiences which focus on the aspects of executive headship which differ from traditional headship, alongside supporting both those who are established and new to their roles in building knowledge and contacts beyond local networks and existing partnerships – this is vital to support the unique needs of executive headteachers."

As part of establishing the network, initial research was undertaken to identify shared priorities of executive headteachers over the year ahead, and the results were striking.

While it is not surprising to learn that more than one-third are prioritising the development of effective assessment and an additional 18 per cent of heads are focusing on curriculum development, there was a marked increase in the focus on finding more creative solutions to budgetary challenges – for example nearly 10 per cent of heads will be prioritising the need to identify new revenue-generating activities this year.

Additionally, in an educational landscape where much of the government focus is currently around inspection and structural reform, just 17 per cent of executive headteachers surveyed see pending Ofsted inspections as a priority. Perhaps this reflects the typical profile of an executive headteacher, which is of a professional aged 46 to 60, with 30 years of teaching experience and 10 years of prior headship experience. It is revealing therefore that more than one-quarter of executive headteachers are prioritising succession planning, and an additional one-quarter are focusing on building capacity and developing leadership across their portfolio of schools.

However, the priorities of executive headteachers depend somewhat on the expertise of the individual and the context of their portfolio of schools. Dame Vicki Paterson, who leads the Brindishe family of schools, explained: "Many of us in executive headteacher positions have arrived here after a journey through the classroom and traditional leadership and headship.

"We already know how to take a school forwards – how to raise aspirations and expectations, how to increase children's progress and attainment, and how to develop our team so that the school becomes and remains outstanding.

"Now, what we are learning along the way in our executive headteacher role is often nothing to do with teaching and learning. Things like large-scale building projects, multi-school staffing and succession planning – there are colleagues across the country all learning these things at the same time, so it is important that we come together and share this journey."

The role of an executive headteacher is still one that sparks debate, and the recent survey shows that there are nearly 50 different official job titles that are used to describe what one might refer to as an executive headteacher – i.e. someone who holds strategic responsibility for more than one community of learners.

Furthermore the nature of an executive headship can mean responsibility for a few hundred children across a handful of rural schools through to a portfolio extending to many thousands of children and hundreds of staff across vast geographical territory.

More than a third of executive heads are brought into their roles as part of school improvement for one of the schools in their portfolio, and around half of executive heads have come into post as part of a collective response to budget constraints and recruitment challenges, so the pressure to find, plan and apply solutions to a vast spread of activity can be immense.

Significantly, less than one-eighth of executive headteachers have applied for their posts, with the vast majority being approached directly to take on additional schools – a factor which has a ripple effect to how successful heads develop their own professional skills and profile, as well as shaping the nature of how schools facing difficulties are led forwards, under which models and by whom.

The group of executive headteachers leading the new network has created monthly "Time-To-Talk" workshops bringing colleagues together in schools and academies nationwide to address specific targeted priorities and issues, and a national Directory of Models and Expertise. In addition to this, the network will be publishing regular updates on trends, priorities and aspects of expertise to support those new to, or considering, the significant role and career progression that executive headship now offers. 

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