Executive headteachers research reveals confusion over role and responsibilities


New research into executive headteachers in England has revealed inconsistency and confusion about their role and the responsibilities. The latest estimates suggest that the title of ‘executive’ headteacher is held by well over 450 individuals working for schools in England, but research initiated by the National Governors’ Association has already found issues which demand further investigation:   

  • Executive headteachers operating in a single school only – contradicting the commonly accepted definition of an executive headteacher as leading two or more schools.
  • A number of executive headteachers accountable to more than one governing board and/or a chief executive. In one case, an executive headteacher was required to sign separate contracts with two different schools, suggesting that there may be confused lines of accountability.
  • Executive headteacher acting as the ‘traditional’ headteacher for one or more of the schools under their remit, with others line managing the heads of all the schools.
  • Notable variation in how much of the day-to-day management of schools is carried out by the executive headteacher.

The number of executive headteachers working in schools in England is expected to increase over the next decade as more schools join together into federations and multi academy trusts. In spite of this, current guidance on their role and responsibilities is sparse.

Emma Knights, Chief Executive of the National Governors’ Association, said:  “It is good that more and more schools are working together and joining groups, which allow them to consider sharing headteachers and other senior leader posts.  The option of executive headship provides more choice both to governing boards and candidates for senior leadership, and is being used increasingly.  

“We need to make sure, however, that the roles we are offering work best for leading schools to offer excellent education. We mustn't just cling to traditional models of headship but explore other options with care and rigour." 

NGA’s report confirms that there is currently considerable variation in the role and deployment of executive headteachers. It provides a strong case for further exploration of this issue, and in particular highlights the need for more clarity around the core responsibilities of those taking on executive headship.”

Dr Lesley Duff, Head of Research, at the National Foundation for Educational Research, said: “This report is a useful contribution in an under-researched area of the education system. As the number of executive headteacher roles increases, decisions made by governors, local authorities, academy chains and policy makers about leadership models need to be supported by rigorous evidence. NFER experts are working closely with the NGA and Future Leaders Trust to ensure this need is met through new research.”

Heath Monk, Chief Executive of Future Leaders Trust, said: “With the recent growth of multi-academy trusts and federations come new models of leadership for schools. It is vital that these models of leadership are transparent and impactful in order to support all children to reach their potential. The role of executive headteacher is an important one, with the potential to provide strategic leadership for groups of schools. However, NGA’s report shows that we must clarify what it takes to make a headteacher ‘executive’. At present, there is too much inconsistency in the way executive headteachers operate. We need to address this inconsistency so that more schools can benefit from the strategic oversight of an executive headteacher – as well as continuing to ensure that we attract and support exceptional headteachers to provide strong leadership on site every day.”

Fifteen executive headteacher application packs were subject to a desktop review exercise by the National Governors’ Association and form the basis of this interim report, which is published today. The aim of the research was to understand more about the types of schools/groups that employ executive headteachers, the role an executive headteacher is expected to fulfil and the skills they need to in order to meet the expected standards.

Even at this early stage there can be little doubt of the variation in the recruitment and deployment of executive headteachers in England. But aside from principal inconsistencies, more uniformity was found when exploring the strategic role of the executive headteacher. All executive headteachers were expected to play a role in helping the board to set the vision, create operational plans and continuously monitor and review these plans through self-evaluation.

Next steps

The National Governors’ Association will be working with the National Foundation for Educational Research and Future Leaders Trust to clarify the role of the executive headteacher, with a report due summer 2016. This research will involve qualitative comparative analysis of executive headteacher and ‘traditional’ headteacher application packs; quantitative analysis of school workforce data to map the prevalence and demographics of executive headteachers; and case studies of a small sample of schools. This should further our understanding of modern school leadership in England.

Click here for more information on the collaborative project.