I spent last Friday with around 130 school leaders who have joined ASCL’s ground-breaking National Professional Qualification for Executive Leadership. It’s the training ground for existing headteachers and principals who are stepping up to take on a role as system leaders.
These are the people who will have responsibility for more than one school, often leaving behind the safe certainty of their current role and choosing to work with schools that are struggling and need a great deal of support.
It’s the pinnacle of a career in education, the product of years of experience in the classroom and in leadership. So why is it that one participant said this to me “I’m an executive headteacher but in the current climate, I don’t like to say so”?
Everybody reading this will know the answer already, of course. The development of multi-academy trusts has been accompanied by a discourse of controversy, a narrative of negativity, and a daily diet of headlines which have created a less than positive perception.
This cannot be right. Because we need these partnerships – groups of schools joining together to train teachers, support one another, share staff and resources. And from where I stand, I see many good people doing the right things. I see veteran leaders mentoring new recruits, a quality of coaching and feedback that wasn’t there when I stepped into leadership. I see a moral purpose on behalf of the disadvantaged that rarely makes the headlines.
So, let’s unpick why there is this mismatch of perceptions, between what I see when I survey the educational landscape and what I read and hear in the media.
Dealing with the present
There’s the politics. For many people in education and beyond, the grand Goveian plan of mass academisation still grates. The infrastructure of multi-academy trusts and regional schools commissioners is only necessitated by the move away from local authorities. It’s the recognition that freedom and autonomy often need to be accompanied by support and partnership.
But we can argue about the rights and wrongs of structural change for as long we like. It’s history. It’s now about us dealing with the present as it is, about us putting things right.
Then there are the controversies about the way in which multi-academy trusts are actually run. And there’s perhaps no subject more toxic than the issue of chief executives’ pay.
Let’s take that head-on.
It is entirely right that high salaries in the public sector are questioned and scrutinised, and particularly so in education where every penny spent must clearly be to the benefit of pupils. This is public service and it’s public money. Trusts that pay their chief executives very large sums must be able to justify that decision to parents, communities, staff and taxpayers in general.
And it is entirely reasonable and right that, in February, Eileen Milner, chief executive of the Education and Skills Funding Agency, wrote to the chair of trustees of multi-academy trusts that pay a salary in excess of £150,000, asking for the rationale for setting that level of pay.
But we also need to offer some perspective. There is a real danger of the narrative about high salary levels dominating the discourse about multi-academy trusts. Of course, it could be argued that the antidote is to grasp the nettle and deal with the issue. And that is one of the reasons I welcome the intervention of the Education and Skills Funding Agency.
However, we must also bear in mind this letter was sent to 87 multi-academy trusts and that there are, at the latest count, more than 1,400 multi-academy trusts in England. Salary levels in excess of £150,000 are not remotely representative of the sector as a whole.
And let’s also bear in mind that there may be strong arguments for paying £150,000-plus salaries in large, complex trusts, with responsibility for many schools and many thousands of children. Note that I am trying to avoid being cast as a defender of high salaries here. It’s up to individual trusts to justify their decision-making with transparency and probity. And the picture may be more somewhat more nuanced than it sometimes appears.
On the wider scale what I see when I look at multi-academy trusts and the work that goes on in them is good people doing their very best. Just as there are in all types of schools of course. Nobody, for the most part, is commenting on or celebrating that work. But these people are out there. And the young people in our schools and the communities they serve are the unspoken beneficiaries.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton