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What Are the Implications of the Changing Role of School Leaders in MATs?

What are the implications of the changing role of school leaders in MATs?

Author: Sam Henson, Director of Information and Policy 

Moving MATs forward

NGA’s recent report Moving MATs forward: the power of governance, poses four big debates to take the sector forward. Tom Fellows, Research Manager explores the second of these, in our Moving MATs Forward debate series.   

The role of head of school in an academy within a MAT is different to that of a headteacher of a standalone school. Heads of schools are often line managed by other executives in the trust (such as trust-wide directors or the chief executive) as opposed to those governing. The role of head of school is fundamentally different to that of a headteacher in a standalone school; with many MATs having a head of school focused on teaching and learning while other responsibilities, such as oversight of finance and premises, are taken on by a central team reporting to the chief executive. In particular, there are implications for who should be held accountable for the performance of individual schools. What are the implications of the changing role of school leaders in MATs and how might these work best?

The role of the headteacher

Ask a member of the public “who is the lead professional in a school?” and the majority of respondents will reply “the headteacher”. This answer is built upon the traditional stand-alone school model, where the headteacher leads the operational day-to-day running of a school, including overseeing teaching and learning and finances, and works with the governing board to implement the strategy.

The role of headteacher is well documented and widely understood. There is a set of national standards for headteachers which splits the role neatly into four domains. Legal responsibilities of the headteacher are also clearly enshrined in legislation and, for those in maintained schools (which many standalone academies use), there is even a structured pay scale. Across the sector, there is a clear consensus about what a headteacher is and what they should do. Ofsted also has a clear understanding of what they expect from leaders, and there is a common understanding that the “buck stops” with headteachers when it comes to organisational outcomes.

The growth of a new leadership tier

Over the past few years, the growth of groups of schools - both federations and MATs - has altered the nature of headship. In these settings, the traditional “headteacher” in each school are often no longer the lead executives across their organisation. Instead, it is common to find headteachers sandwiched within complex management structures, with school staff below them and an additional tier of executive leadership above them.

Exploring these emerging themes in more detail, NGA, The Future Leaders Trust (TFLT), and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) conducted a piece of research exploring the roles and responsibilities of executive headteachers in 2016. The research found that the “roles of [executive headteachers] are distinctive from traditional [headteacher] roles in requiring higher levels of strategic thinking; greater emphasis on coaching, delegating and achieving change through others; and capacity to look outward”. In some settings, the research found executive headteachers sitting above headteachers in the leadership hierachy.

Yet, in MATs, it is not just executive headteachers which ‘sit above’ headteachers in groups of schools. The role of “chief executive”, which first appeared in larger trusts, is now used frequently to describe the role of the lead executive in all types of MATs. Other roles, such as executive level directors, have also appeared in larger MATs – further pushing the traditional headteacher down the pecking order in the organisation. In some larger trusts, headteachers may now find themselves two or even three tiers below the chief executive on the leadership ladder.

Why is this significant?

The nature of ‘leading a school’ in a MAT, compared to leading a standalone school, has significant implications for accountability, roles, responsibilities and governance. In a number of MATs, the headteacher’s role is very much focused on overseeing teaching and learning, and headteachers in MATs may or may not have less responsibly for finances or strategy depending on what is delegated to them.

While the role of headteacher may have changed in MATs, those that are transferred over from headship roles in maintained schools/standalone academies often have their salaries and benefits protected under the Transfer and Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 (commonly referred to as TUPE). While there are options within the TUPE legislation to make changes to terms and conditions in limited circumstances, this is a complex issue and requires specialist human resources advice.

NGA has also come across disagreement or confusion over who should lead performance management of the headteacher. NGA advocates that line management should always follow the executive hierarchy, with the only member of staff being performance managed by the governing board being the lead executive. However, research conducted by NGA last year found different tiers of governance and management – particularly the local tier and the chief executive - often disagreeing on who should lead and be part of performance management. This, in itself, is part of a wider problem, with those governing at a local level struggling to accept or being confused about new lines of authority and accountability.

In some trusts, NGA has encountered executive leaders in MATs unwilling to ‘interfere’ in the day-to-day running of a school. NGA has come across instances where this has created problems when performance issues arise, with the central executive (i.e. the chief executive and/or directors) reluctant to encroach on what they perceive to be their colleague’s professional space, and those governing at a local level without the delegated responsibilities to discipline or remove a headteacher.

In contrast, headteachers in MATs sometimes find themselves with diminished authority and responsibility, despite applying for a job or joining a MAT on the understanding that they will be carrying out the same role as the headteacher of a standalone school. In these cases, tensions can brew in the unlikeliest of places such as, for instance, ‘who should be leading this meeting – the headteacher or the chief executive?’, ‘who should be attending meetings and facing challenge from the local governance tier?’, or ‘who has the authority to discipline pupils or staff in a school?’ NGA is also aware of some trusts who have laid the blame for underperformance completely upon a headteacher in a MAT, with little consequence for the central executive team.

The need for a debate

Some steps in the right direction have been made to recognise the distinction between headteachers of standalone schools and headship in MATs. Some MATs have started to refer to headteachers as “heads of school” and NGA support this move to provide a distinction between the differences in headship across the sector. However, further debate is needed on how the role of headteacher differs in a MAT compared to a single school, where accountability for school underperformance lies in these organisations, and what remuneration arrangements should be for headship roles in MATs – particularly in light of changing roles and responsibilities.