OPINION: Why listening to teachers isn't such a bad idea after all

SCRUTINY AND DEBATE: Former head and CEO David HudsonSCRUTINY AND DEBATE: Former head and CEO David Hudson
SCRUTINY AND DEBATE: Former head and CEO David Hudson
ACADEMIES Trusts are made up of non-geographically linked groups of educational establishments known as academies, academies that are advised/led/monitored by a non-elected, relatively arbitrary, hand full of individuals known as trustees.

Typically, each academy has its own headteacher and governing body, an executive headteacher who ‘oversees’ that and other academies within the trust, and a CEO (chief executive officer) who ‘oversees’ all the academies in the trust. Again typically, trusts have under their umbrella both primary and secondary academies, and while the headteacher of the academy is always a professional who is trained in the same primary or secondary phase as the academy they lead, more often than is healthy the executive headteacher is from the ‘other’ phase. The CEO oversees both primary and secondary academies in the trust but is trained and experienced in only one of the two phases. So, we have primary trained and experienced teachers calling the shots in secondary academies and secondary trained and experienced teachers calling the shots in primary academies.

Before we had academies we had schools, and these schools were geographically defined/advised/led/monitored by their LEA (local education authority) i.e. the local council or local authority. These days, the local authority (LA) has little control over the academies in their geographical area but has somehow retained much of the responsibility for their outcomes.

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And the question I want to pose is: is this change in leadership model - LA to academy trust - a change for the better?

Well, speaking as a successful teacher of over 40 years’ experience, a successful secondary headteacher with 20 years’ experience, and a successful executive headteacher and CEO within a successful academy trust, my view is that the academy system didn’t have much to beat.

Many years ago, each LEA had a director of education who generally had many years of experience and sometimes provable success in schools, and this person had advisors – primary secondary and subject - who knew the local schools well and often worked in them and with their teachers and senior leaders.

The dawn of the director of children’s services working within LAs meant that this inside knowledge and experience reduced dramatically and very quickly fell to a level far lower than that required to do the job, let alone do it well, and because of this, the focus became people that didn’t know what they didn’t know trying not to look bad when OFSTED (the government’s monitoring and inspection vehicle) came to town. Governing bodies that were routinely dominated by local councillors too often put the needs of the LA before the needs of the school and saw their primary role as taking care of school finances, i.e. reducing spending and being well in the black, and so fell naturally behind the looking good as opposed to being good line. And despite being what the school is for, why it exists in the first place, and what parents and children want, student progress and learning were left to survive on the scraps occasionally falling from the high table.

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So, in my view, the removing of LA influence and control was a good and long overdue idea, and I really don’t want to go back to what we had before. However, I fear that certain key details of the system we now have are severely reducing any benefits generated, and I want to highlight the following:

1. A fundamental requirement of the government that introduced the academies idea was to have people other than teachers, who they thought quite left wing, called ‘the blob,’ and felt were not to be trusted not to indoctrinate young minds, at the helm, and this belief together with the fact that schools cost a shed load of money (that word again) and were therefore businesses, led to the idea that businesspeople, who with few exceptions know how to run businesses, should be running the country’s schools. High street brand corporations were thus encouraged to develop trusts and provide trustees while in contrast experienced teachers were viewed with scepticism and were kept out of as many decision-making opportunities as possible. And before people point to the CEO of a brewery becoming the CEO of a clothing outlet and doing both jobs well, I say loud and clear that leading and managing a school is very different to running a business and needs years of teaching managing and leading within the school system, just having been a pupil back in the day is not enough. The faceless trustees now ‘running’ our academies are more likely to have experience in business than teaching and learning and I fear that we have replaced a not fit for purpose LA group with a less known and less accountable not fit for purpose business group.

2. But trustees are not day to day involved in the academies they run and their negative impact, like the negative impact of LAs, is likely to be less telling than it might otherwise be because of this. And that’s when the other massive own goals of hands-on cross-phase (primary/secondary) leadership within our academies and coping with the confusion of more than one lead professional in the building comes into its own.

Parents and children are the people that matter and, quite rightly, they look to their headteacher of their academy and expect that headteacher to articulate their beliefs and imperatives, to know their child as a person and a learner, and to be present and walking the corridors of that academy, the only academy in the trust that is of interest to them. The headteacher is seen as the lead professional and not the mouthpiece of person or persons micromanaging from afar, and since working in the two phases are as different as chalk and cheese parents, again quite rightly, expect their headteacher to be trained in and have first hand experience of teaching, managing and leading children in that phase, i.e. primary or secondary.

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The headteacher will need the support of critical friends such as a CEO and governors, and parents can understand that, and a very high percentage of governors should be parents of children currently attending the academy, but I see no real role for an executive headteacher and neither do parents, unless the academy trust has over 20 schools under its remit when a deputy CEO, not executive headteacher, might be sensible.

Indeed, all trusts should have a CEO coming from one phase and a deputy CEO coming from the other. And most important, any personnel primarily in the trust’s leadership structure i.e. not dedicated to one school – executive head, CEO, trustee – should see the absolute necessity of working through the headteacher and not directly with that headteacher’s staff or students or the parents whose children attend that headteacher’s academy. It is alarming how many executive headteachers and CEO have failed to grasp this vital last point, and how many potentially outstanding headteachers are accepting a much reduced and less impactful role just to pay their mortgage, or who have decided to leave and do something else.

3. Underspends presently operating within the country’s schools and academies are a major problem, and what is spent on our children’s education is falling well short of what the government provides. A great deal of money, taxpayers’ money, is involved and each institution has a duty to spend wisely and within their budget. However, schools or academies routinely put aside a contingency fund for a rainy day, and then on top of this are so desperate not to fall into the red that they go on to underspend by even more, and, often, are astonishingly proud of how much of the money belonging to their students they have managed not to spend.

LAs could use the unspent money from certain schools to fund other schools spending wisely but still slipping (not routinely and not too much) into the red but felt that this sent the wrong message and would look bad to OFSTED. This was a mistake and to be the improvement on LAs that I want them to be, academy trusts should choose to operate just one contingency fund across the trust, not one in each academy in the trust, and then allow underspend to be ‘borrowed’ and paid back within the trust making the one-year budget less of a straitjacket, spending wisely much more doable, and the money issue not as dominant. This rarely happens and the approach to finances of academy trusts tends, now, to be little different to the LAs the replaced.

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We expect our children to be safe in our schools and academies, we expect our teachers to treat our children as if they were their own, and we expect all students to make sufficient learning progress given their age and ability. Teachers know how to make all this possible and if allowed to do so they’ll tell us, perhaps listening to teachers isn’t such a bad idea after all.

David Hudson (Author of ‘The Ten Allen Keys of Successful Secondary School Headship,’ former headteacher of Wickersley School and Sports College, CEO of Wickersley Partnership Trust, executive headteacher of Clifton School, Rawmarsh School, and Gainsborough High School. Awarded an OBE for services to education.

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