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'Working in schools is not about getting rich – it's about making a difference'

The general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union offers new heads some tips for staying out of trouble

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The general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union offers new heads some tips for staying out of trouble

When I hear stories like those presented in the Channel 4 Dispatches/Observer investigation, How School Bosses Spend Your Millions, I feel anger on behalf of the thousands of school leaders – in academies and in maintained schools – who work incredibly hard for sensible wages to make things better for their pupils. It is hard to remember, in the face of such headlines, that on average a headteacher will earn less than the average MP. Thousands of headteachers work for less than £50,000 a year – and often these are the hardest working heads of all. Many have dipped into their own pockets to buy food and clothing for pupils.

I despair of our ability to campaign for the funding that we desperately need if money is wasted, and wasted visibly. There are schools making redundancies, cutting subjects and literally papering over cracks to make ends meet. Waste is intolerable in these circumstances as it will drag the whole system down. It could make a fair funding formula harder to achieve.

On behalf of the ethical and prudent majority, I wanted to offer new heads some tips for staying out of trouble. If you want to enhance the standing of our profession, think carefully about these steps.

1. Take your pay as a single straightforward base salary, paid through the school and approved by the trustees or governors. People don't mind if a good head is paid well – if it is all above-board and transparent. Don't take additional private income through companies or consultancies. If you generate additional income for the school, have it paid into the school budget and negotiate a pay rise with your governors.

2. Don't employ close relatives. They are probably really good. If so, help them find work in another school unconnected to yours and share the talent around. 

3. Avoid related-party transactions. They are legal but the current guidelines don't protect you from obvious reputational damage. A related-party transaction is when a trustee or senior manager gives work to a business in which they or a relative have a beneficial interest (e.g. you assign a catering contract to a firm which your husband runs). These are legal if done "at cost" and declared, but "at cost" is hard to define, especially for individual daily rates, and the transactions often look opaque. If an alternative supplier can be found, you would be far better contracting them. 

'Maintain professional boundaries'

The actions I advise against above can be taken for good reasons and with the best of intentions, but they can also be the opening steps on a journey which takes us far away from the best interests of the organisations we run. 

This is not necessarily an academies-only phenomenon. I think the same balance of principles and ambitions exists across both sectors of schools. However, the rapid growth and weak oversight of the overall academies movement does create problems. And by oversight I don't mean just formal audits, important as they are; many of these practices are not illegal. I mean the sort of relationship with a neutral outsider who can pull an otherwise talented leader to one side and say, "Hang on a minute..."

As a trade union leader, I often defend school leaders from the most outrageous and unjustified attacks. A head tentatively asked me a while ago whether it might be wrong for her chair of governors to have challenged them to a fight because they disagreed with a decision. I see long hours and harsh accountability borne with good spirit and the firmest principles. I see this in all sorts of schools, academies and maintained. 

This makes it all the more depressing to observe even isolated cases of "self-harm". In an all-consuming job, it is all too easy to lose track of the boundaries between the personal and the professional, but they must be kept rigid. This is the difference between a personal fiefdom and public service.

Our reputation and integrity matter. They are the gateway to professional autonomy, the foundation of earned authority and the secret to sleeping soundly at night. As Margaret Hodge said, public service is not a place to get rich. It is a place to make a difference. 

Russell Hobby is general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union. He tweets as @RussellHobby

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