The case of the disappearing headteacher

During the extreme heat for two days in July of this year, I made the decision to keep my school open. These are the kind of decisions headteachers hate because they are presented with a binary option – stay open or close – and both options have significant downside risks and negative consequences. To add to this, much of the information they need to make such a decision is not readily available.

I learnt a great deal about running a school in conditions of extreme heat over those two days. For example, we have a chemicals store in our science department which is accessed by an exterior door. That exterior door faces the sun in the afternoon. In the chemicals store are liquids which will become combustible at certain temperatures. The temperature in the storeroom has never been anywhere near maximum limits, that is until the UK experienced unprecedented temperatures!

Long story short, all was fine. A combination of robust risk assessment processes and highly competent staff meant that the problem was recognised and managed.

As a headteacher of a single academy trust, I am responsible for all of the above. Equally, I am accountable for the decisions I made and how it played out on the ground. I am similarly accountable for everything else that happens in the school. There is a governance structure whose legal responsibilities are significant, so my accountability is shared in certain respects, but as the senior executive of the organisation, I think we all know where the buck stops.

But is this the best way to run schools?

This question was deftly explored by Carly Waterman at the researchED National Conference yesterday. Carly points out that headteachers like me are a dying breed. Why is this? And is it a good thing?

The UK is unusual in how much control has been bestowed on headteachers in recent decades. Headteachers have been ceded total control over how they spend their money, who they recruit, how the school day is structured, how lessons are taught, and how pupils are managed. Academisation offered additional freedoms such as being allowed to break from the National Curriculum and School Teachers Pay and Conditions. There is, of course, a regulatory structure within which schools operate, but the point is that where there are freedoms, it has been the headteacher who has decided how to exercise these freedoms by and large.

But this is changing. As schools move into multi-academy trusts, the role of the headteacher inevitably evolves. We are effectively shifting from an entrepreneurial model to a corporate model, by which I mean that when their school joins a trust, the headteacher is no longer top-dog. This means a change in role, but also a change of mindset.

In her talk, Carly points out one significant consequence of this which is the diversification of what it means to be a headteacher. Trusts are free to centralise services and define the headteacher’s role as they wish. Some trusts have taken the view that schools should continue to be run as autonomous enterprises, therefore the headteacher’s role remains largely the same. However, there are a plethora of other structures which have emerged which centralise decision making in different ways and to different degrees. In other words, we are moving towards a school system in which the title ‘headteacher’ is either disappearing, or means different things in different trusts.

I don’t know if these changes are for the best. But more worryingly, neither does anyone else. And yet, there is almost no public debate about this.

Who should be part of this debate? Well, as a parent of a child at a state school, I look to the headteacher to ensure the school is well run. Am I wrong to do so? Exactly who is making the decisions that affect my child now?

We need teachers, school leaders, policymakers and academics to inform this debate too. Questioning of assumptions is important because there are some ‘common sense’ decisions being made which I suspect would not stand up to scrutiny. I will provide one example.

There appears to be a logic applied by many of those who decide what responsibilities to remove from headteachers which goes something like this:

  1. Teaching and learning is the most important thing that happens in a school (and we have evidence to show that it is the most important factor in determining outcomes).
  2. Leadership is the second most important factor in school improvement – good schools have effective leaders. Studies show that in successful schools headteachers directly influence classroom practice.
  3. We should therefore free up headteachers to pay as much attention as possible to teaching and learning. If we take away their responsibility for personnel matters, health and safety, finance, safeguarding and all those other nuisances that get in the way of the headteacher focussing on the ‘core business’, standards will improve.

This is a superficially attractive argument, but is flawed on so many levels. In another of yesterday’s talks, Professor Rob Coe pointed out the weaknesses in the research into leadership and school improvement. One weakness is that many studies look at correlation, but fail to determine causation. School outcomes do often correlate with particular leadership practices, but this is very different from claiming that one causes the other. For example, the argument above assumes that it is the focus by the headteacher on classroom practice that causes better outcomes. However, it is equally plausible (perhaps more so) that headteachers working in stable, successful schools have the capacity and luxury of spending time attempting to influence classroom practice. Those in more difficult circumstances are having to spend time improving attendance, managing behaviour, finding staff, supporting vulnerable children, and so on. The success of their school is not restricted by their personal lack of attention to teaching and learning. If you take away responsibility for these things and ask the headteacher to focus on classroom practice ‘because that is what successful headteachers do’, you disempower the headteacher from beginning to make the changes necessary in the school.

Until we are more informed about how schools improve, and what role headteachers play in school improvement, we must be very careful about what we remove from their remit. Neither should we underestimate the importance of the ‘figurehead’ identity to the school community. Someone else could have made the decision whether my school remained open that day in July, but something would have been lost. Something about being in touch with the community. Something about holding the big picture in mind when making seemingly unrelated decisions. Something about trust and public accountability.

We need to open up this debate. Change is upon us and a range of voices should be heard.

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