I don’t begrudge any head a six-figure salary

It’s the school leaders on the front line who should command the big bucks – not the Mat CEOs in their comfy offices

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You’ve got to hand it to Sir Dan Moynihan. The chief executive of the Harris Federation is not afraid of defending his gargantuan remuneration package nor of suggesting that some academy heads are being paid too much.

It suggests a fair degree of self-confidence but, then, he has a lot to be confident about. By any measure, Sir Dan runs a good multi-academy trust, with a remarkable record of turning around failing schools. Moreover, he points out, last year he made savings of £5 million at Harris. A MAT of the size of Harris, with its 48 academies, is near-enough a corporation: judge Sir Dan as a businessman, and maybe his half a million-plus whack doesn’t look unreasonable.  

But then he spoilt it by suggesting that heads earning anywhere near the oft-quoted prime minister’s salary (£167,000) for running only a small trust, or a single school, are being overpaid. Quite apart from the obvious comment about people in glass houses, I think he’s got it completely wrong.

Just rewards

It’s not the people in a central office who should command huge salaries for making corporate decisions about savings on photocopying or catering contracts, or even masterminding strategic interventions in struggling schools: those who deserve the big reward are those at the sharp end, what we used to call the chalk-face.

Just for once, I’m not talking about teachers in general, but specifically heads, since they were in Sir Dan’s firing line. The MAT chief executive may decide where savings (that’s the posh word for cuts) must be made every time government funding is further squeezed, and may even come into the school to make the announcement. But then it’s back to HQ, away from the immediacy and impact of real school life.

It’s the leader on the ground who has to deal with the fall-out, the tears, the hurt, the recriminations, and the sheer wear and tear on all the staff who have to work even harder to fill the gaps created.

It’s the head, not the MAT boss, whose heart sinks when a teacher gets it horribly wrong and repair work or disciplinary processes must follow. And who has to deal with the difficult or embittered colleagues who might make hay with staffroom gossip during such episodes.

It’s the head who knows when a necessary sanction against a pupil will bring a combative parent into school with all metaphorical guns blazing. That most redoubtable of heads, Katharine Birbalsingh of Michaela School, complained in The Daily Telegraph last week that the default reaction of too many parents nowadays is to leap to their child’s defence, suggesting that the teacher has picked on them, or is racist. Even after 28 years of headship, I still found myself surprised on occasions by the readiness of some parents to assume that any blame must attach to the school, not to the immaturity of a child who needed to learn how to behave. I was never threatened by a parent (except with legal proceedings): but plenty of heads have been.

Rock solid

And then there are the children. To be sure, in-school heads have the privilege of witnessing and marking achievements (a joy remote CEOs may miss from their former life). But they must also help youngsters to deal with disappointment, failure, loss and bereavement. And with the tragic bombshell, a student or staff death: while the school finds itself on an emotional roller-coaster, the head is required to stand firm as a rock, providing support for everyone while, frequently, receiving little in their turn.

That’s the hard bit, which deserves what you might call danger money, payment for the relentless and lonely demands of the job. Dealing with all the challenges that colleagues, parents and children bring to the head’s desk every day is, I’d suggest, rather tougher work than implementing corporate strategies, achieving miraculous money-savings and presenting shiny spreadsheets to the board.

Well paid for it in my day (though not in excess of the PM) I wouldn’t grudge six figures to any school head. Nor should the country’s highest-paid education professional. To do so is insensitive on his part – and frankly insulting.

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Bernard Trafford

Bernard Trafford

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher