Vacuum at the top? by Dr Bernard Trafford

I fear that, whenever anyone sees my name at the top of a blog nowadays, they’ll assume I’m about to embark on a rant about the latest government initiative or policy. To be fair, I do it a lot.

But here I want to raise a slightly philosophical question about school leadership and, more specifically, headship: not about its nature, but about what happens when it becomes remote. The question concerns me, because we all too easily become so entangled in discussing structures and rationalisations that we risk overlooking an intensely human aspect of leadership.

The current government thrust is towards creating Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs). A powerful driver behind the Academies programme was successive governments’ suspicion of Local Authorities: many ministers found them unresponsive to Westminster’s agenda for school improvement:  hence the move to so-called independent academies (not a description I like, since I run a private – genuinely independent – school).

Successive governments have quickly realised that single stand-alone academies can find themselves isolated and that schools tend to fare better when collaborating. Moreover, they were also swift to appreciate that academy chains – in effect, MATs – bring with them not only mutual support but economies of scale: administrative functions can be centralised, both streamlining the staffing and arguably giving them more muscle in keenly-priced procurement.

Critics of the growth of MATs might suggest wryly that they now resemble Local Authorities, but without the democratic accountability. Simultaneously the enormous salaries commanded by top executives in some large academy chains, whether they are called chief executives or executive principals, have attracted media opprobrium.

The economies of scale are undeniable. With an executive principal at the top (however highly paid), there’s no obvious need to pay heads’ salaries to those running the individual institutions: they receive support from the centre, and don’t carry the ultimate burden.

Many functions related to improvement, quality assurance, even recruitment and marketing that might have been taken by deputy heads are now handled at the centre, so Senior Leadership Teams in each academy can be slimmer – and thus cheaper.

I’m not questioning the logic of all this. But, as I said at the start, it leaves me with a philosophical dilemma about the nature of headship.

It’s always seemed to me that parents must have access to the head, the final arbiter, the person who has the last say (pace the Governing Body) and sets the tone in the school. In practice, I can’t claim that, in my fairly large independent school (1300 pupils), parents beat a path to my door. If they did, I couldn’t cope: but they can (and do) get to me almost immediately if they need to.

Moreover, in (you might say) the traditional style of education’s private sector, they know the head’s there, not out running a couple more schools. They like to see the head in the old-fashioned way – at the school gate, taking assembly, just being around. The head is supposed to articulate the vision of the school, to walk the talk: it’s a rare independent head who runs more than a single institution or site.

Parents relish that visible leader-figure. They know the head cannot possibly know the name of every child, nor personally guide his or her development, protecting each individual from whatever storms that may come. Nonetheless they enjoy a sense of reassurance: not promised by the school, certainly – but, well, assumed.

I’m not seeking to denigrate the excellent work done by heads in MATs where there is an executive principal above them. But in my traditional world, parents and students like to know where the buck stops: I wonder how the lack of clarity in multi-institution structures really sits with those vital constituencies.

Accountants won’t justify the expense of a highly-paid head in each constituent unit of a MAT. Yet as a model it has worked for a long time: Tony Blair insisted he could judge how good a school was just from meeting the head.

I’m not having a go at MATs: nor at those highly effective professionals running individual academies; nor at their bosses, the executive principals. But if my kids were starting school again, I suspect I’d want to know that the head really ran the school, and to be able to see him/her in their office if I needed to.

Education ministers in the Blair government used to talk about sectors of society that were “hard to reach”. Though we might easily picture who they had in mind, I loved the riposte from someone speaking for the dispossessed: “It’s not us who are hard to reach: it’s the b*ggers at the top!”

Whatever the prevailing structures and systems, schools are essentially neighbourhood institutions, located within and serving a community. They are all about people, reaching out to, and working with them.

If the real power in the school/academy is elsewhere – at the MAT’s offices, with the executive principal directing at arm’s-length and making periodic, if regular, visits – I wonder how the institution can claim really to operate on a human scale, to be immediately approachable, truly at the service of parents and children.

I’m sure some MATs manage it. I doubt whether all do. I fear that the question is rarely, if ever, asked.

Yet humanity must, surely, always come before efficiency. Or it should do.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headmaster of the Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School, a NET Leading Thinker and a former Chairman of HMC.

@bernardtrafford

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