The emerging role of executive headteachers

Written by: Karen Wespieser | Published:
Wide-ranging: The common skills and priorities deemed necessary for success in the executive headteacher role

What is an executive headteacher? Karen Wespieser looks at the role and skills of the growing number of executive headteachers and outlines the strategic purpose of this emerging role

Unlike the term “headteacher”, which is defined under section 35 and 36 of the Education Act 2002, there is currently no legal definition of what an “executive headteacher” (EHT) is or what they should do. Research conducted by NFER, Ambition School Leadership and the National Governance Association in 2016 sought to investigate the EHT role.

Who are the current EHTs?

Using the School Workforce Census, the research found that EHTs are becoming increasingly prevalent as the self-improving school system matures. There are more than 620 in the school workforce today and the number recorded in the census has increased by 240 per cent between 2010 and 2014. That said, this still only accounts for around three per cent of the overall headteacher population.

The data revealed that as of November 2014 there were 20,560 headteachers and 621 EHTs in schools in England. More than half (60 per cent) of the EHTs were in primary schools but, proportionally, secondary schools are more likely to have an EHT. Nearly all (98 per cent) had qualified teacher status, and most (70 per cent) had previously been a headteacher. EHTs were more likely to have higher level qualifications – 24 per cent of EHTs have a Master’s or PhD compared to 16 per cent of headteachers.

The distinctive role of EHTs

As well as analysis of data in the census, the research team also looked at the application packs of leadership jobs advertised in the national press, as well as 12 in-depth case studies. Using this qualitative data we were able to investigate the duties and skills that distinguish the EHT.

A Department for Education (DfE) definition considers that the “post of executive headteacher should be used for a headteacher who directly leads two or more schools in a federation or other partnership arrangement” (DfE, 2015). Our research largely supports this though we found that it does not wholly reflect the picture on the ground. In practice, EHTs can:

  • Lead formal groups of schools (multi-academy trusts or federations).
  • Be the substantive leader of one school and have a contractual arrangement with one or more other schools (maybe on an interim basis).
  • Lead a school with more than one phase or site (that is, not necessarily two separate schools).
  • Have management responsibilities which go beyond that of a single phase school (such as managing a Teaching School Alliance).

It is therefore helpful to think of an EHT as the strategic leader of more than one school or equivalent responsibility. It is a complex role that is deployed in a range of contexts and structures to address different priorities. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the role of EHT.

Importantly though, the role reflects the context and needs of the school(s), the time available to the EHT, and the experience and strengths of the individual. It also takes account of the other roles in the leadership structure of the school or group of schools, such as head of school(s) and chief executive officer. This sometimes means that these other roles also have to respond to changing structures, remits and relationships. This can be challenging in fast-moving environments and clear schemes of delegation that set out accountability arrangements are key to clarifying roles and responsibilities for new and evolving executive leadership tiers.

The strategic priorities of EHTs

The role is still evolving at a national and local level and, while it is very clear that the position is varied both within and between school groups, we were able to draw out the commonalities of the role. We found three strategic priorities that EHTs focus on to varying degrees: school improvement (e.g. addressing school underperformance), organisational expansion (e.g. increasing management capacity and efficiency), and partnership growth (e.g. forming and growing a school grouping). While traditional headteachers will also focus on these areas, it seems that EHTs are recruited to add capacity and to fulfil particular aspects of these priority areas.

We also identified four distinct functions or roles that EHTs undertake to a greater degree than their headteacher counterparts. These are strategic thinking, coaching and staff development, consistency and collaboration, and being outward facing.

The distinctive skills of EHTs

From analysis of interviews and application packs we found that the skills that EHTs need are similar to those necessary for a more traditional headteacher role. Both headteachers and EHTs need to think strategically, communicate effectively, support others to develop, build effective teams and be well organised. However, the EHT role requires individuals to demonstrate these skills at a higher level.

Moreover, EHTs need to demonstrate particular skills more than traditional headteachers, to reflect their typically more strategic role in more complex and larger systems. They particularly 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, balancing the needs of multiple schools, and ensuring there are clear lines of accountability within large organisational structures.

These skills may vary depending on the particular purpose and remit of the executive post and are shown in the illustration below.
Despite their strategic focus, described by some as having a “helicopter” perspective on strategy, all the EHTs we spoke to also had a grounded approach to their pupil communities.

As one EHT said: “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.”

Clearly, the EHT role is still evolving. As EHTs take responsibility for ever more schools in England, their role will be crucial to the effectiveness of multi-school groupings in the self-improving school system.

Creating an EHT position: Ten key questions

To help support leadership teams who are considering appointing an EHT, Jennie Harland and Karen Wespieser from NFER worked with leadership specialist Andy Buck to create a list of key questions to consider when creating an EHT position.

Some of the questions may seem prosaic, but they are designed to facilitate a discussion and to elicit people’s pre-conceptions about what is involved. They include:

Overview of the EHT role:

  • Can you describe what the core purpose of the role of the EHT is in a couple of sentences? (What are the basic principles that you are applying when working out the detail?)
  • What aspects of leadership will the EHT be responsible for and how might these be divided with other leadership roles, such as head of school? (e.g. strategic leadership; day-to-day operation; recruitment, training and management of staff; teaching, learning and curriculum; use of data to monitor, evaluate and improve performance; community engagement and partnership working.)

Logistical issues:

  • How many days is the EHT in each school? Will this change over time? Where is the EHT predominantly based?

School management issues:

  • How will the backfill of staff in each school be organised? How will the staffing structure in each school be agreed?

Attendance at meetings and events:

  • Who will attend senior leadership team meetings and who will run them? Who will be responsible for liaison with parents (e.g. parents’ evenings, open evenings)?

Working with governors/trustees:

  • How will the governors/trustees work with the EHT?
  • How will the governors/trustees work with each head of school?
  • Karen Wespieser is head of impact at NFER. This article was written with contributions from Pippa Lord who directed this research project at NFER. The full report and a range of related resources and outputs can be downloaded at

NFER Research Insights

This article was published as part of Headteacher Update’s NFER Research Insights series. A free pdf of the latest Research Insights best practice and advisory articles can be downloaded from the supplements page of this website:

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