Emma Knights

Author: Emma Knights

21/10/2016 08:57:45


Yesterday evening, academics from the Centre for High Performance published an article which should give governing boards hiring and rewarding school leaders in England pause for thought.  As has already been set out by Christopher Cook from Newsnight and in Schools Week, the research was extensive, covering 411 leaders in 160 secondary academies using data over seven years.  At first glance it appears too tidy to be completely right: five types of leader with very different approaches, correlating to their degree subject. But only one type - so called ‘architects’ – make a sustainable difference to schools and, most importantly, to current and future pupils.What’s more, they are the ones we pay the least even though they run growing successful schools.  Of course it’s made more difficult as we don’t usually know about sustainability until that leader moved on. 

The charlatans, whom the researchers more diplomatically dub ‘surgeons’ are on the whole the ones receiving high pay and they also appear to be the ones gaming the system. Most shocking of all was the extent of disappearing pupils in 'surgeons'' schools.  Yes, we have had inklings of this, but this data uncovers the enormous extent of it. These very heads who no doubt use the phrase ‘moral purpose’ are systematically moving out pupils who will hurt the school’s performance table ranking. Surely their governing boards monitor this:  if they haven’t been, this research reinforces the need to do so and not accept excuses for why so many pupils are leaving the school.  Like many aspects of the reported findings, I want to know more before I throw accusations about, but this cannot be ignored.  There are clearly schools which are not there for all.

NGA will be doing more work over the coming year to support governing boards who are recruiting new leaders (we were always planning to do this). But this research will inform and invigorate those discussions.  As tempting as it might be to pilot a one-question selection process as “what degree do you have?” this needs a somewhat more sophisticated response. 

It also needs an open mind. There are already people on twitter whose immediate reaction is to rubbish it. It challenges many of us in education, as Andy Buck of Leadership Matters, has already acknowledged. 

We all gravitate to those findings which support our own beliefs and I must admit one of the findings particularly chimes with me. The ‘architects’ have generally spent some time working outside schools and this needs more examination.  I have lost count of the amount of times that I have sat in meetings with school leaders who passionately believe that all wisdom about leadership can be found within schools.  If you are not a serving or recently retired head you might be tolerated, if you are sufficiently deferential, but woe betides you if you challenge the predominant thinking, such as the ‘schools-led system’ - literally means all leadership thinking and professional development has to be led by those within schools. Some even take it as an attack on the profession when you suggest there might be something to be gained from looking out to other sectors, or working alongside people with experience of leadership in other places. Generally, when school leaders talk about ‘looking outwards’ they seem to mean to other schools, not more broadly.  I hope this research goes some way to encourage us all to place more value on experiences outside schools.

Declaration: I have a Biochemistry degree, thankfully a subject which does not appear on the list.  I can think of some remarkable leaders that I have met recently who do not have a history, economics, music or physics degree (the identified golden subjects).  This included one very persuasive former English teacher, now leading a small multi academy trust, who seemed to have the ‘architect’s’ approach.  It’s so wonderful to have one’s thinking challenged – this research provides a real fillip the end of this half-term to those of us interested in improving school leadership.

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