Headteachers frantically searching for schools to work with to form multi-academy trusts are being confronted by a new and very delicate problem to resolve – who becomes the boss?
Leaders contemplating creating a multi-academy trust (MAT) with other schools are being urged to choose a “lead professional” who will act as the trust’s chief executive.
But union leaders said the issue was a “serious obstacle” for headteachers who were establishing a trust, because they faced the prospect of “surrendering their autonomy and independence”.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT heads’ union, advised school leaders to avoid a situation where “six headteachers are sitting around the table, staring into each other’s eyes”.
“Most headteachers will be thinking, ‘I got into this to be a leader, I didn’t get into it to be a branch manager of a chain.’ And you have to ask, why would good people want to give that up?” Mr Hobby said.
The problem came up frequently in discussions at the Academies Show in London this month, where senior leaders spoke of a widespread “sense of panic” over the government’s decision to convert every school into an academy by 2022.
The show’s organisers said attendance was up 82 per cent on last year, indicating the hunger for information among schools after the announcement of universal academisation.
One head at the conference, Laura Baggett of Monkhouse Primary in North Tyneside, told TES that delegates had been turned away from one seminar called “Academy Conversion and MATs – are you ready?” because of high demand.
“There is a general feeling of panic and of not being in control,” Ms Baggett said. “You’re worried that if you take too long to make a decision [to join or form a MAT] you will be left with too few options, and you’re worried [about] jumping in too quickly.
“You could join a MAT with people who could change, or the people you start with may not be the people you end up with.”
The need to form relationships quickly means that the issue of who becomes the chief executive is taking on a particular significance. As such, Ms Baggett and her colleagues are trying a novel approach.
“We are a group of five schools and we are looking at sharing the role of the CEO year on year. It’s a joint role, and any decision will be made jointly,” she said.
‘Threat’ of lost autonomy
Dean Jones, head of Chartham Primary School in Kent, agreed that school leaders “have been used to their own autonomy and they do feel the threat of losing that”.
This means that attempts to create a “flat” structure at senior level, or to change the CEO year on year are commonplace among heads wary of ceding control to another person. But according to Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governors’ Association, they are also ill-advised.
“Having four or five heads making the decisions jointly or swapping the role after a period of time is a bad idea, Ms Knights said. “And what’s more the regional schools commissioners and the government don’t like it.”
“What heads and governors need to realise is that by creating a MAT you are creating a single organisation, and you need to have one position at the top of that, [someone who] makes the decisions and who manages the performance.”
Failing to establish the discrete role of chief executive or having an executive headteacher who was also the chief executive, could lead to problems such as those experienced by the scandal-hit Perry Beeches academy trust, Ms Knights said.
The Birmingham-based trust is being investigated by the Department for Education amid “serious concerns about financial management, control and governance”.
Ms Knights added: “Trying to make all decisions jointly is terribly bureaucratic. And what if headteacher number three takes over as CEO and is terrible at it? How do you performance-manage that? Do you just wait for 11 months until the next one takes over?”
Heads should look at job-sharing such roles, she advised, but even that could be difficult as it meant being careful “not to duplicate and undermine” your colleague.
Mr Hobby said it was important for headteachers and governing boards to agree a definition for the role of chief executive before any decisions were made.
“It might be that you want the CEO to be more business-minded, or to take care of the back office side of things more than teaching and learning – in which case it might not be for you,” he added. “It is possible for a CEO to be created but for the heads of schools to retain their autonomy.”
The CEO’s salary
One area that is a particular cause for concern is how much a MAT’s board of trustees should pay its chief executive in the new, fully academised school system.
Attempts by the Department for Education and the School Teachers’ Review Body to draw up salary guidance have so far failed, leaving trustees in the dark as to what is suitable.
At one end of the salary scale is Sir Daniel Moynihan, chief executive of the Harris Federation, who earns nearly £400,000. Meanwhile John Mannix, chief executive at Plymouth CAST, takes home £80,000-85,000 despite running just two fewer schools.
Emma Knights from the National Governors’ Association, said that her organisation was regularly called by governors and trustees asking how much more they could pay their heads because they were fearful of losing them.
Three heads walk into a bar…
A certain amount of wrangling can take place when headteachers are discussing forming a MAT, according to Emma Knights from the National Governors’ Association.
The heads of three secondaries – each rated “good” by Ofsted – were keen to form a trust. “The three heads were close and often went drinking in the local pub together,” she said.
Two of the schools were “borderline requires improvement” so it was agreed that the head with the strongest Ofsted judgement should become the chief executive.
“So the selection process was a selection of one,” Ms Knights said. Or it was, until the local outstanding secondary school wanted to join.
“The would-be trustees were delighted to have an outstanding school joining the trust, but it ruined the arrangement of the other three heads. It’s worth noting that the outstanding head was also a woman, who didn’t drink in the local pub.”
A deal has yet to be brokered.