How to move from headship to being a MAT CEO

27th May 2016 at 01:00
Many new CEOs will come from the ranks of headteachers. A head that has already made the leap gives his view of the transition between the two roles

Most headteachers are pretty happy being heads. You know the people in the school well, both staff and pupils, and that brings delight and attachment. You live and breathe everything that happens and that makes it exciting, motivating and stimulating. And when it goes well, there is something distinctly and deeply satisfying about being a head.

Some headteachers will, inevitably, have to sacrifice some of these elements if their school becomes an academy and, ultimately, part of a multi-academy trust (MAT). The White Paper said that trusts can be of any size, with 10-15 schools being average. That means we could need as many as 1,500 new chief executives. You would expect a great number of the latter roles to be filled by headteachers.

After all, in the developing world of MATs, the role of the chief executive officer (CEO) is becoming a fundamental one. The people who oversee and provide strategic leadership for MATs will be key players in our emerging landscape. If there are to be CEOs overseeing MATs, and thus line managing and working alongside a number of heads or principals, then how well that job is done is going to matter a lot for all of us. So putting up our hands to become CEOs, to ensure that someone who understands schools and what it means to run one, is important.

The road to becoming a CEO

Like me, many heads have walked a route to some version of a CEO already. In truth, we have often forged a path and worked our way through this via our own thinking, sharing ideas and thoughts with others we have known on the journey and taking advice from various people and written articles along the way.

The roles are now being clarified rather more and for those in the future there are clearer versions of job descriptions and roles given what we now know and what seems to be the ‘right’ way to go about things. It is encouraging to see the development of meaningful training evolving for these roles. This does seem crucial given that, in many ways, they are quite different jobs than being the traditional head of a single school. A national professional qualification for executive leadership is probably long overdue.

Let’s be clear: when you step up, a lot changes. And the more executive you become (ie, the greater the number of organisations for which you assume responsibility) then the greater the change in the nature of the job. You have to accept that you will no longer know as well (or even see) the pupils and the staff in any school than you did before. Your work has to be done more through others: you become a leader of leaders.

This is not the same as overseeing your senior team in your single school. You are seeking to oversee a group of heads or principals who, quite rightly, have clear views and feelings about leading their own organisation. This is what you want: it would be a bad mistake to squash that. Equally, you want to make sure that all are genuinely pulling in the same overall direction and are committed to securing the best for all, as well as the best for their own school. It’s a tough balancing act.

A matter of trust

One question to be grappled with in this move from headship to CEO is the extent to which one might remain as executive head of one or more of the schools in the trust while also being CEO.

Different trusts do different things. Clearly, the larger the trust becomes, the greater the need for any CEO to give his/her all to that role exclusively. However, circumstance might dictate that executive headship does remain appropriate for some. Often, it might be with the school where the single-school headship started. Everyone knows you and what you are about in that school. Equally, emergency circumstances might well dictate the need for you to become executive head in a different school. What matters is that any decision is thought through.

It is not unreasonable to query what exactly a CEO of a trust does, especially given that people might question quite what even a single-school headteacher is up to. It is up to individuals to work this out depending on their trust, their circumstances and, most important of all, what they are aiming to do.

Some of it will be forced, such as the time that has to be spent liaising with various Department for Education representatives as well as others with a stake in the educational landscape. Some of it we should guard against: it might be easy to slip into certain ways of thinking that focus on growth alone (“How many academies are in your trust?”) rather than what we are trying to achieve and how we are trying to improve things for students.

If you want to stay true to yourself, and true to the person you were as a headteacher, to bring all those benefits of headship to the table, then my advice is to make it all about your core values.

Being a CEO puts one in a privileged position to be able to influence educational good more than previous school leadership posts have permitted. For me, it is crucial to seek to articulate what that means and then always to refer back to it and to be driven by it. Anything else is, ultimately, a distraction.

Stephen Munday is executive principal of Comberton Village College and CEO of Comberton Academy Trust

Key issues for CEOs

Getting the best across all schools in a trust into every school

Empowering school leaders to focus on pupil outcomes

Getting the money right, ie, making it go further

Ensuring governance is robust and will outlive a trust’s founding leadership

Growing the next generation of leaders

Our regional Headteacher Board has made support for CEOs, and would-be CEOs, of MATs one of its top priorities. This is in addition to the establishment across the country of programmes about being a CEO.

We meet annually with all CEOs and chairs, more often when there is growth planned for the trust or if there is concern about a particular school.

We have offered a MAT self-evaluation tool. This term, we have offered sessions on reporting on each school in a trust very regularly to the trust board, risk management (the top issue of concern raised on the MAT self-assessment) and a series of events by county, led by Sir Barry Day, a successful CEO who has just retired. We will also be running a pre-autumn conference in Cambridge, to prepare for the significant growth in trusts we expect next academic year.

Dr Tim Coulson is regional schools commissioner for the East of England and north-east London

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