Why it's time to define the role of academy CEOs

A new consultation aimed at defining the role of academy trust CEOs could give this growing sector clarity for the years ahead

Dan Worth

Middle leaders in schools: How teachers can make the move into curriculum leadership

It’s fair to say that the impact of school trusts on the educational landscape has been huge: since the Academies Act 2010, they have grown to the extent that 43 per cent of all schools belong to a trust, and these trusts are responsible for educating 55 per cent of all children.

While some of these trusts are small – made up of two or three schools, or sometimes even just a single school – there has been a rise of medium and large multi-academy Trusts (MATs) that have responsibility for numerous schools at once

This growth of MATs has led to the rise of a new job title in education: the CEO – chief executive officer – whose role and responsibilities are very different to anything that has come before in education.

“I started teaching in 1983 and this would have been an alien language to me,” says Sir David Carter, who became CEO of the Cabot Learning Federation and then national schools commissioner from 2016 until 2018.

Indeed, so quickly has this role emerged over the past 10 years that no formal principles exist that outline what the role entails or how it should be done.

“If I think back to my own experience…we set up the first multi-academy trust in the South West in 2009 and, frankly, for first 18 months we were feeling our way. I don’t think I nor the board really knew what my job was,” admits Sir David.

This is quite different to school headteachers, who for many years have had a formalised series of standards set by government that encompass a raft of topics such as school culture, behaviour, teaching and professional development.

Now, though, the Confederation of School Trusts (CST) is seeking to rectify this by creating a specific framework around the roles and responsibilities of trust CEOs through consultation with the sector.

Leora Cruddas, CEO of the CST, tells Tes that doing this marks an important step in the evolution of the trust sector.

“In public policy terms 10 years is not a long time and the role of CEO has been very differently enacted across sector, so it seemed like the right time to begin codifying this,” she says.

To this end, the CST says creating a “robust, sector-led definition of the CEO role” will prove useful for several reasons: it will help with professional development of current CEOs and their performance management, identify and guide aspiring CEOs and inform succession planning, and inform hiring decisions.

Defining the role of the academy trust CEO

The consultation sets out three key points around the role of the CEO that it wants to formalise: a definition of the role the CEO, the ethics and professional conduct to which they should adhere, and six core responsibilities that underpin the responsibilities of the role, as follows:

• Strategic leadership: trust ethos, culture and strategy

• Finance, sustainability and compliance

• Quality of education

• People strategy

• Governance and accountability

• System leadership and civic responsibility

The full description for each section is outlined in detail in the consultation document, which can be viewed online. The consultation is open until the end of October for those who wish to respond.

But is all this really necessary?

After all, if the sector has grown so strongly over the past 10 years, does this not suggest that the CEOs know what they are doing without the need for strict definitions of what they do? Well, judging by the reaction of CEOs, the move is a very welcome one.

For example, Paul Tarn, the CEO of Delta Academies Trust, which operates 52 schools, says: “I think this is a very welcome development from CST. We have standards for headteachers and we should for CEOs, too.”

Meanwhile, Cathy Anwar, chief executive of Summit Learning Trust, which includes four primary and three secondary schools, says consultation is an “essential piece of work” and a timely one.

“There has been much written about how to be a CEO, but nothing definitive that brings together the core expectations and required skills and competencies until now,” she says.

“Coming at this post-pandemic time, this gives reassurance and clarity to boards and to the sector around the key role in our academy system.”

And Rowena Hackwood, chief executive of Astrea Academy Trust, which is formed of 26 academies, says it is “really important” that the role of CEOs is properly discussed and codified, given the huge responsibilities that come with being a MAT CEO.

“The skills needed to be a MAT CEO are very wide-ranging: strategy, financial literacy and oversight, accountability, risk management, quality systems, data and insight and – perhaps the newest area – system building within and beyond the sector.”

Preparing for the future

So why now? For Cruddas, it comes down to ensuring that there is great clarity in the sector about what CEOs do – no small point when you consider the number of teachers and pupils who are ultimately affected by their decisions.

“There is possibly a view in the sector that because of where trusts have come from, as they’ve mostly grown out of a single "outstanding" school where the head becomes CEO of a trust, there may be an erroneous view that the role of CEO is ‘head teacher plus’, [but] it really is not – it has an entirely different statutory and regulatory basis.”

What's more, with the growth of academies expected to continue, she says the principles will help any new trusts that emerge to ensure that any CEO knows the details of their role – a point that Tarn makes, too, with regard to the potential future growth of academies.

“Through Covid, there has been broad agreement of the benefits and importance of being in a strong trust and there is likely to be a real move of small trusts and single academy trusts into larger trusts, and of more local authority schools becoming academies,” he says.

“That brings even greater responsibility to the CEO role.”

A second key point for Cruddas is that doing this work now will ensure that the next generation of MAT CEOs know what is expected of them and boards know what skills applicants should have as and when they take over – something that was not such an issue 10 years ago.

“Because [the CEO role] is quite an emergent role, it is still mostly being done by first-generation CEOs who stepped into the role and started to define it [on the job],” she says, echoing the point made by Sir David.

“But codifying what the job is now is important in succession planning and spotting talent, so you know how to develop the next generation of CEOs,” says Cruddas.

Tom Rees, the executive director of school leadership organisation Ambition Institute who worked with the CST on the consultation, agrees that getting this aligned now will be hugely helpful to ensure a smooth transition between CEOs in the years ahead.

“Trust leaders are really important and responsible for huge amounts of public money [and] for the learning of more than half of children in the nation's school's – yet it’s still a relatively new role,” he tells Tes.

“We have known about the work of teachers and headteachers for much longer but the work of the CEO in the education system has become something we need to learn a lot more about.”

Perhaps this is where the consultation is even more important – not for telling those already in post what their job is but helping future CEOs to understand what will be required of them. 

Cathie Paine is deputy chief executive at REAch2 Academy Trust – the largest primary-only trust in the country – and she agrees that having a formalised understanding of the role will help to guide future CEOs.

“This is a really welcome piece of work from CST that brings clarity to complexity,” she says. “[It] helps us as a sector to consider the role of the CEO as we look to the next phase of development for MATs as academy trusts mature.”

Outside talent

Meanwhile, Sir David, who has worked as an adviser on the consultation with CST, raises another interesting idea: creating a framework around the responsibilities of MAT CEOs may entice high-profile leaders with a non-education background to work in the sector.

“I suspect 90 per cent of [current] CEOs have the same background that I did, as a teacher then a head,” he says.

“But I think that will begin to change as people realise you need someone who can run a complex organisation that has a £50 million turnover and that the best people to do that may not be rooted in education but are from outside.”

He admits this may not happen overnight and there is an understandable “nervousness” of boards to appoint someone without educational experience.

However, he says if the CEO has the skills needed to run a large trust and is surrounded by skilled people who do have necessary educational background, there is no reason why a skilled CEO from outside education could not run a MAT.

“If you have 20 schools in a trust with 20 headteachers, do you need another one [in the CEO role]?" he adds.

Tarn, though, says he would be wary of this because it could mean having to appoint more people into high-level positions that do have that educational insight.

“If you appoint a CEO who has little or no education experience, then you need to spend a lot of money by appointing people around the CEO who do have that knowledge to patch the gaps – that's more expensive and pushes salaries up.”

Sir David, however, believes there will be a move towards appointing CEOs from outside education: “I suspect in five years' time that ratio would be different [with] more people coming in from different sectors and backgrounds.”

That would certainly be an interesting development and would be watched closely by all – would outside CEOs be welcomed for their new ideas and insight or dismissed as interlopers out of their depth? Time will tell.

Either way, what is clear is that there will shortly be a formalised definition of the role of MAT CEOs in the same way there is for teachers and headteachers.

Which, given that 11 years ago the term "MAT CEO" would have been almost meaningless to anyone in education, says rather a lot about how quickly the sector has changed – and how central CEOs are to its future, too.

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Dan Worth

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