Note to academy heads: learn political landscape very fast

6th June 2008 at 01:00
Leaders of the semi-independent state schools did not expect the level of hostility they had to face
Leaders of the semi-independent state schools did not expect the level of hostility they had to face

The first wave of academy headteachers did not anticipate that they would be thrust into the media glare as central figures in a "national political battle".

But a study based on interviews with 12 of the first leaders of the privately sponsored state schools has found that few were prepared for the close public scrutiny they and their schools came under.

The majority of the heads say that the unwanted attention added to the challenge of improving results for pupils who had previously attended failing or underperforming schools.

But most said the pressure on them had now eased as the number of academies had increased, and they had developed strategies for dealing with the media and gaining support in their local communities.

The first three academies opened in 2002, with nine more the following year. They were outside local authority control and partly run by sponsors, which could include private companies, entrepreneurs, faith groups and universities.

The involvement of sponsors led parents' groups and other campaigners to brand the creation of academies as a step towards the privatisation of education. Teachers' unions were also critical because the new schools did not have to abide by regulations protecting teachers' pay and conditions.

The new study, published by the National College for School Leadership (NCSL), concludes that those heads brave enough to take on the new schools - most were built in deprived areas - had to quickly become politically astute.

One head told researchers how he had to shield his own staff. "I don't think I appreciated or anticipated the hostility that would come with being principal of an academy," he said. "There was a lot of poor information at the start, which meant people didn't understand. So when I started here some of my staff had a really hostile reception when they went to conferences or local meetings, and I had to look at how to train them to deal with that."

Heads also found that negative media reports focused on minor issues that would not have raised an eyebrow at other local community schools. One said he had resorted to treating the press "with the contempt they deserve".

Another felt under pressure from teachers' unions: "They peddle their stuff and it needs to be addressed, otherwise people start to believe it and it's all inaccurate. I spend a lot of time correcting the 'misunderstandings' that are manufactured by a few, but which impact on many."

Parents often provide the closest scrutiny of all, the NCSL report said. One principal described his local community as operating "a bit like the East End mafia", but said he had eventually worked out ways of dealing with parents' issues and complaints through a formal procedure.

The heads highlighted the fact that the academies programme had garnered more support from abroad than at home - many received enthusiastic foreign visitors.

"We are a hit in Australia, but in our own country the media and even local people have been much slower and even reluctant to see the progress we have made in such a short space of time," one said.

The report's author, Dr Hilary Macaulay, interviewed 12 heads between September 2005 and October 2006, but said the difficulties of the early days had eased.

There are now 83 academies and plans to open 400 by 2013.

Dr Macaulay was a deputy in a community school when she carried out her research, but has since become principal of West London Academy in Ealing.

"The principals requested and expected scrutiny from inspectors, and they knew there would be a lot of publicity, but in some cases it became personal," she said.

"They were part of the first wave and there was nothing for them to base anything on - they had to design their own landscape.

"In the very early days, you had a lot of departures very quickly because of the huge responsibility.

"Women were reluctant to take on the job as it was very high risk, but the climate has changed."

The incorporation of academies into the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust in 2005 has meant they are viewed as not so different to other specialist schools. More support is available.

"Leading an academy is clearly not an exact science, although with the expansion of the programme there are more tested methods to lean upon to secure positive outcomes for the children and schools," Dr Macaulay wrote. "All 12 academy principals indicated that leading in a climate of such diverse close public scrutiny has been one of the single, biggest challenges in their professional careers, but this in turn has fuelled them with a determination to succeed."

The report, which has been distributed to heads, was taken from Dr Macaulay's recent PhD on academy leadership for Hull University Business School.

- Under the Microscope: Leading in a Climate of Close Public Scrutiny


- In 2000, Tony Blair launched the city academies programme, building on the idea of the 15 city technology colleges created by the Conservatives.

- In 2002, the first three academies were opened. There are now 83 nationwide, and 50 more are scheduled to open in September. There are plans for a total of 400.

- The Government has dropped the word "city" from the programme to allow them to be built in rural areas.

- Private sponsors, in the form of business, faith or voluntary groups, have to contribute around pound;2 million or a tenth of the cost of the building work. But universities, high-performing colleges and other schools as sponsors will be exempt.

- Key concerns include the involvement of the private sector in running state-funded education, and the freedom of academies to set teachers' pay and conditions. Many have stirred anger from parents' groups as they linked to school closures.

- In 2002, a furore was sparked by revelations that staff at academies sponsored by the Emmanuel Schools Foundation were teaching creationism alongside evolution.

- Last year, protesters camped out on Wembley Park sports ground for six months to protest against the proposed Wembley Academy. The sponsor subsequently dropped out, but protesters have pledged to return if the local council and ARK Schools, an education charity and new sponsor, go ahead with the plans.


Hilary Macaulay's research into the pressures of academy leadership concludes there are five key pieces of advice for heads leading any school under intense public scrutiny.

Political awareness: Principals are often asked to comment in the press and on television. Good awareness of the political landscape is essential if you are to feel secure in your decision to respond to questions.

Prepare your staff and listen to them: Most staff join academies from local authority maintained schools with little, if any, experience of the reaction or pressure they may face from others outside the academies programme.

Involve and invite: By inviting the community and parents into the academy, principals felt able to gain greater control of their domain and establish these relationships on a more positive footing. It also helped them dispel myths and suspicion.

Network professionally: As the academies programme has grown, respondents reported feeling a strength in numbers and support for one another.

Make the local press work for you: Purposefully build relationships with the local media and provide them with items to run that focus on the achievements of students, rather than drier political issues.

Source: 'Under the Microscope: Leading in a Climate of Close Public Scrutiny' by Hilary Macaulay.

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