The Future of Executive Heads in Northern Ireland?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 13 February 2017
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

The Times newspaper on Saturday December 31st published a story headed, “School crisis as hundreds of heads quit”. Their research revealed that one in ten schools in England is losing a head each year and there are serious problems in recruiting new heads. NAHT General Secretary Russell Hobby is quoted as saying “It is proving difficult to recruit head teachers in all parts of the country. Many talented candidates are put off by government bureaucracy that distracts from a focus on good teaching”.

Times Education Correspondent Nicola Woolcock suggests that for aspiring deputy heads the salary differentials are not worth the hassle, especially given the pervasive football manager syndrome where governing bodies expect instant improvement. The leader article in the same edition points out that it is impossible to deliver good schools without a strong head teacher. The article suggests that market forces demand appropriate pay, an end to endless change from government and clustering of schools led by outstanding executive heads. While the problem is not quite as acute in Northern Ireland, the same trends are certainly present here too in terms of the recruitment of heads.

The logical next step in Northern Ireland would, therefore, seem to be to consider executive headships here also. A number of successful examples are already operating in some areas.

Emma Knight of the National Governors Association asks;

“Does every school actually need a traditional 'headteacher'? Allowing a head of school to lead teaching and learning, without the full business responsibilities of running an organisation, could be an all-round win."

The Future Leaders Trust (now Ambition School Leadership) write in a report examining the role and impact of Executive Headteachers (EHT) in July 2016;

“The roles of EHTs are distinctive from traditional headteacher (HT) roles in requiring higher levels of strategic thinking; greater emphasis on coaching, delegating and achieving change through others; and capacity to look outward.

“… school leadership in England is changing, creating new opportunities for those who don’t fit the traditional head teacher mould. In multi-academy trusts, heads of school, executive principals and CEOs (and their teams) share the responsibilities traditionally exercised by the standalone head. More than ever before, leaders must be able to shape and share a powerful vision and values, collaborate, develop and empower others and communicate effectively – skills in which those who have previously been overlooked as “not tough enough” for headship might excel. “

So do we in Northern Ireland need to start thinking differently about leadership of our schools? Certainly the requirements of the job are changing dramatically. Research by The Key for ASCL suggests that up to 30% of heads time is now taken up by Human Resources work. The current budget crisis has demanded of school leaders increasing skill in managing finances and changes in society have delivered a new raft of pastoral problems more commonly associated with social workers and psychologists for heads to deal with.

An important report on executive headteachers was published in 2010 by the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services (NCLS).

The report states that the increase in executive headship is part of a broader trend that has seen schools having more autonomy and school leaders being given increased responsibilities. As a result, many school leaders now share or distribute leadership to other colleagues and have developed a more strategic approach to their leadership role. This has coincided with schools being encouraged to work together to bring about school improvement, address underperformance, provide a broader curriculum offer for 14-19 schools, introduce extended services and develop children’s services through multi-agency working.

In the report the suggested skills and competences needed by an Executive Head are summarised as including; operating and thinking strategically, being focused on performance and evaluating and planning for whole schools, forging collaborative partnerships with others and having ‘entrepreneurial and political skills’.

Resilience is quoted as a necessary attribute, but also the need to be optimistic, uncompromising and demonstrating patience and genuine humility’.

Writing in The Guardian in July 2013 Nick Morrison explores the challenges of executive headship and quotes the experience of the executive principal of the Cabot Learning Foundation Sir David Carter who is responsible for 10 schools.

He says key tasks are to build trust and address the obvious challenge of being well-known in one school but unknown in the other. He suggests that you have to build confidence that you are going to have an impact.

Sir David gave influential members of the senior team roles in both schools, avoiding the impression the federation was all about one person and ensured that there were demarcations over responsibility. "You have to be very clear about the territory in which the executive leader steps in," he says. "While the headteachers are accountable for the performance of children in their buildings, I'm accountable for the performance of all the children."

He regards the biggest danger as being when a successful school joins one that is struggling and avoiding resentment setting in, based on the assumption that an outstanding school knows everything. "The reality is even schools in special measures or with notice to improve will have individuals and teams doing outstanding work.”

NFER research confirms these challenges;

“This creates challenges across the education system by blurring lines of accountability at executive and governance levels, and potentially confusing the roles and responsibilities between leaders at individual schools and the executive headteacher overseeing them.”

In Northern Ireland, NAHT Past President Raymond McFeeters currently has a similar role to that of an executive head, working across a number of schools. He is head of Castle Tower Special School in Ballymena which is an amalgamation of three schools and Ardnashee School in Derry/Londonderry which subsumes two former schools. He describes his own experience in the following way;

“The job is very much about strategy, vision and empowerment as I see it. The staff have to accept that your role is different and that needs to be communicated from the start. This is probably more challenging for the school you have been originally based in as they have to accept a different version of you and what you are there to do! Clear role definition and middle managers who will step up and take on new roles is essential. This requires careful consideration on the part of the employing authority as they need to provide appropriate funding to make this possible as well as developing a clear job description for the role of ‘Executive Head’ if this is the direction of travel.

Ultimately all of the people at each institution have to know that you are equally engaged, and equally motivated to drive each school forward. This is the challenge I suppose, to communicate honestly why you are there and what you are trying to achieve.”

In terms of developing leadership in schools in Northern Ireland, securing a strong middle leader tranche is clearly a necessary first step. Teachers can begin to develop the skills and competences mentioned above so they can step up to bigger leadership roles. Thereafter from among head teachers those with the ability and strategic vision to be executive heads will emerge and the potential will exist to create more unity and consistency in our education system.


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This article is correct at 13/02/2017

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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