This article was written by former head of impact at NFER, Karen Wespieser.
What is an executive headteacher? Unlike the term “headteacher”, which is defined under section 35 and 36 of the Education Act 2002, there is currently no legal definition of what an “executive headteacher” (EHT) is or what they should do.
To understand better this emerging role at NFER, we looked at the application packs of leadership jobs advertised in the national press, as well as 12 in-depth case studies. Using this qualitative data we were able to investigate the duties and skills that distinguish the Executive Headteacher.
A Department for Education (DfE) definition considers that the “post of executive headteacher should be used for a headteacher who directly leads two or more schools in a federation or other partnership arrangement” (DfE, 2015). Our research largely supports this though we found that it does not wholly reflect the picture on the ground. In practice, EHTs can:
– Lead formal groups of schools (multi-academy trusts or federations).
– Be the substantive leader of one school and have a contractual arrangement with one or more other schools (maybe on an interim basis).
– Lead a school with more than one phase or site (that is, not necessarily two separate schools).
– Have management responsibilities which go beyond that of a single phase school (such as managing a Teaching School Alliance).
It is therefore helpful to think of an Executive Headteachers as the strategic leader of more than one school or equivalent responsibility. It is a complex role that is deployed in a range of contexts and structures to address different priorities. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the role of Executive Headteacher.
Importantly though, the role reflects the context and needs of the school(s), the time available to the Executive Headteacher, and the experience and strengths of the individual. It also takes account of the other roles in the leadership structure of the school or group of schools, such as head of school(s) and chief executive officer.
This sometimes means that these other roles also have to respond to changing structures, remits and relationships. This can be challenging in fast-moving environments and clear schemes of delegation that set out accountability arrangements are key to clarifying roles and responsibilities for new and evolving executive leadership tiers.
The strategic priorities of Executive Headteachers
The role is still evolving at a national and local level and, while it is very clear that the position is varied both within and between school groups, we were able to draw out the commonalities of the role.
We found three strategic priorities that Executive Headteachers focus on to varying degrees: school improvement (e.g. addressing school underperformance), organisational expansion (e.g. increasing management capacity and efficiency), and partnership growth (e.g. forming and growing a school grouping). While traditional headteachers will also focus on these areas, it seems that Executive Headteachers are recruited to add capacity and to fulfil particular aspects of these priority areas.
We also identified four distinct functions or roles that Executive Headteachers undertake to a greater degree than their headteacher counterparts. These are strategic thinking, coaching and staff development, consistency and collaboration, and being outward facing.
The distinctive skills of Executive Headteachers
From analysis of interviews and application packs we found that the skills that Executive Headteachers need are similar to those necessary for a more traditional headteacher role. Both headteachers and Executive Headteachers need to think strategically, communicate effectively, support others to develop, build effective teams and be well organised. However, the Executive Headteacher role requires individuals to demonstrate these skills at a higher level.
Moreover, Executive Headteachers need to demonstrate particular skills more than traditional headteachers, to reflect their typically more strategic role in more complex and larger systems.
They particularly need to balance driving change themselves with achieving change through others. They also need to address challenges such as the division of strategic and operational leadership with their heads of school, balancing the needs of multiple schools, and ensuring there are clear lines of accountability within large organisational structures.
Despite their strategic focus, described by some as having a “helicopter” perspective on strategy, all the Executive Headteachers we spoke to also had a grounded approach to their pupil communities.
As one EHT said: “I work at the bottom of an inverted pyramid with the students at the top of the pyramid. They are the most important people in the school. The inverted pyramid must therefore be strong, well-balanced and very stable.”
Clearly, the Executive Headteacher role is still evolving. As EHTs take responsibility for ever more schools in England, their role will be crucial to the effectiveness of multi-school groupings in the self-improving school system.
The full report can be downloaded here.
Supporting Executive Headteachers and MAT CEOs
Our school leaders and teachers are involved in creating new and emboldened futures for our children and young people. However, we believe, with the ever-increasing pace of change in our schools, true and sustained educational excellence can only be achieved when the need to provide a first-class education for our young is accompanied by the need to meet the emotional, mental and vocational wellbeing of those who teach them.
Our children deserve nothing less than the best, but this can only be achieved when the hearts and minds of our school leaders and teachers are also nurtured and cared for.
We know that there are many Academy Trusts across the country who believe this too. That’s why we work with MAT CEOs and Executive Headteachers to help them overcome the inherent challenges of building and leading in a MAT, so that they can create a family of schools that are characterised by…
– Open, constructive and honest communication
– High levels of emotional resilience and capacity for overcoming challenges
– Humanity, compassion and a deep commitment to the MAT’s vision and values
– A true love for learning in which personal transformation is possible
– Strong, supportive and nurturing relationships