How did it come to this?
I’ve been covering education in depth for more than two decades and the truth is I don’t exactly know.
I’m not sure I kept abreast of the precise journey that has led to the explosion in financial rewards for those managing our state school system. (And I think that was probably how it was supposed to be.)
But there’s no escaping our destination. The enormous salaries being enjoyed by some of the people running our academies now seem commonplace.
Getting three times what the prime minister is paid for running the country to oversee a chain of academies in a single city? Yes, we know all about that – old news. Receiving more than £200,000 to run just one school? Shockingly, it’s not even surprising anymore.
The humongous pay packages enjoyed by some of our state school leaders may have crept up on us over the past 15 years, in the same way that academy autonomy quietly fell away with the advent of the multi-academy trust (MAT). But both phenomena seem here to stay – indeed, they are advancing.
It is the context that makes this state of affairs particularly hard to swallow. School funding is nearly 2 per cent lower in real terms than it was at the start of decade, and teachers’ salaries have done even worse than that. Never mind a pay freeze – the average wage of a classroom teacher has actually fallen by nearly £3,000 or 7 per cent, in the past seven years.
Academy CEO pay restraint is over
But pay for academy leaders has not only managed to defy gravity – it has gone in completely the opposite direction. A recent major analysis of latest MAT accounts confirmed that any kind of brief nod towards academy executive pay restraint was well and truly over. Leaders of the biggest trusts have just seen their already generous pay rocket upwards by nearly a quarter – 23 per cent on average – in a single year.
And while you’re taking that figure in, don’t forget that this is public money, money that could have otherwise been spent on some of the many things that schools so desperately need. These pay rises aren’t the result of some clever academies state/private/third sector alchemy. This is all being funded through public spending – your cash and mine.
So, what do we, the taxpayers, get in return for the increasingly generous rewards we are dishing out to our academy hotshots? We pay a lot more so do we get a lot more back? Have things got much better in our schools as a result? The short answer to that is no, they haven’t really.
The academies system has produced some notable successes. But there have also been plenty of disasters. Academy status has not proved to be a silver bullet – there are good schools in the movement and there are bad ones, just as there were in the state school system before the whole academies idea was dreamed up.
And two decades on – although about half of state pupils now attend academies – it hasn’t succeeded in its central original aim of breaking the link between social disadvantage and educational attainment. Statistically, where you’re from can still be expected to determine where you will end up in life.
There have been some gains at the margins but there is no evidence that academy status has been the cause. Some MATs have won good reputations in government for their systemic approach to running schools. But increasingly, questions are being asked about some of the methods that have been used.
The fact that the academies movement has not brought a transformative change to match some of its leaders' salaries should not really be a surprise. The status is not accompanied by any great educational recipe for success, just some additional freedoms – which, as far as individual schools are concerned, have largely evaporated anyway thanks to MATs’ centralised control.
More to the point, the lack of system-wide improvement should not be unexpected because academy status has not led to any injection of new leadership talent into the sector.
There are a few exceptions but, by and large, the people running MATs today are ex-state school headteachers. They are the same people who are likely to have been prepared to do the equivalent jobs – in schools or in local authorities – for half the money that some of them are getting under the academies system, just as they were in previous generations.
So, why is the taxpayer now paying these people so much more for the same tasks? How was it allowed to happen?
Era of the 'superhead'
The genesis of the situation we have today goes back more than a decade to an era when "superheads" not only reigned supreme but were beginning to spread their wings and transform into the executive headteachers. The logic was simple – if charismatic leadership was seen as the key to school success, then what simpler way was there to share success than to get your charismatic head to lead more than one school?
But why should your leader be expected to take on all that extra responsibility for no extra pay? So headteachers’ salaries evolved into much more generous executive heads’ salaries. And thus, the principle behind the multiplier effect was born. The more schools you run, the more you get paid. It is still used today as a key justification for some of the more eye-watering salaries paid to MAT chief executives.
It is this logic that makes the £200,000-plus salaries paid to those in academy trusts with just one school seem so egregious to some. So egregious in fact that even the academy sector’s best-paid leader has felt compelled to publicly question what is going on.
Sir Dan Moynihan, chief executive of the Harris Federation – the first academies leader to receive more than half a million pounds a year – told Tes in November: “If you’ve got very large salaries and it's one school or two schools, that needs a closer look, I think.”
“But,” he added. “It’s different when there is a large number of schools and [the trust] is doing well and disadvantaged kids are making progress.”
Worth £500K a year?
In other words, like Lord Harris – the founder of his 48-school MAT – Sir Dan also believes he is worth his £500,000-plus package. But for those that are only running a single school, receiving several hundred thousand pounds a year from the public purse is inappropriate.
At first glance, this seems to make sense. It is certainly hard to disagree with the second part of the argument. But does the multiplier logic Sir Dan uses also stand up to close examination?
An executive head who acquires the title because they have taken on a second school could legitimately be seen to be actually running two schools. But if you’re the leader of a MAT then you will have someone in each individual school to do that job for you – the headteacher. And as each new school brings a new head, is it really reasonable to expect that an expanded MAT will automatically mean more pay for its leader?
It is a mistake to imagine that MAT chief executives shoulder their responsibilities alone – they have large well-paid teams to help. Take Sir Dan as an example. The most recent accounts filed by Harris reveal that, in 2018-19, it had no fewer than 12 employees earning more than £150,000, and a total of 31 paid at least £100,000 a year.
Nevertheless, runs the counterargument, MAT leaders run large, complex organisations and deserve to be rewarded accordingly. But so did local authority education chiefs, and so does the prime minister, and they’re not paid anything like what some of our best-paid academy leaders receive.
All about private equity?
The subtext of the “large complex organisation” argument is that the comparison for these jobs should really be private business leaders. Again, Sir Dan provides a good illustration of the point. When asked about comments by education secretary Gavin Williamson that no MAT boss should earn more than the prime minister, he told Tes: “I respect Gavin Williamson, but the prime minister’s salary doesn’t reflect the rewards the prime minister gets.
"I mean, they all go on and make speeches and earn lots of money and become part of hedge funds and they do all sorts of things.”
In other words, it’s only acceptable for a leader to earn a traditional public sector salary if they have the opportunity to go off and bump it up to private-sector levels afterwards.
But what happened to the idea of public service? The idea that you’re prepared to be paid less than if you are in business because you want to work for the common good? The idea that not everything comes down to money and has to be measured by it?
It’s not as if paying people multiples of hundreds of thousands of pounds means state education receives a return on the investment. We’re not getting the titans of industry in to run our schools – a good job, too, if some of the comments from the DfE’s own former private equity tycoon turned schools minister Lord Agnew are anything to go by. We’re getting pretty much the same people in to run our schools that we would have done anyway – they are just being paid a lot, lot more.
This seems unlikely to change. Huge academy salaries are already losing their shock value. People will soon forget it was ever any different and opposition will fade away.
From a personal point of view, a bit of me already feels slightly awkward writing this piece. The higher echelons of education is a small world populated by a lot of inspirational people (as, of course, are schools everywhere). It’s becoming the norm for them to be extremely highly paid and is it fair to suggest people shouldn’t have what’s normal?
Criticising those lucky enough to be awarded these salaries would be missing the point. Who can blame them for taking the money? If you were doing a difficult job well and your board told you that you deserved to be rewarded with a very generous package, then would you really argue?
It’s the system which allows that it is the problem. The DfE has proved itself impotent in tackling the issue. In the private sector, excessive executive pay is leading to shareholder revolts. In our state schools, it prompts a letter from the DfE which is then ignored when the next pay rise is awarded.
Does all this really matter? There are certainly fewer innocent victims than the other two post-millennium state school scandals – the use of pseudo vocational qualifications to climb league tables and off-rolling.
But it’s the signal that it sends. Should our state education system really be seen as something so lucrative that people can be making serious money out of it at a time when both teacher pay and school funding have been cut?