How are executive heads changing school leadership?

Feb. 8, 2017
Katy Theobald

Katy Theobald

Associate Director, Research and Evaluation

Schools are still working out how executive heads fit into leadership structures, bringing both ambiguity and opportunity.

As an undergraduate I studied psychology and I still love drawing connections between the concepts I learned then and the patterns I see now in educational research. One concept which frequently comes to mind is called 'tolerance for ambiguity': it’s the reaction people have to uncertainty and ambiguous situations or stimuli – whether they view them as threatening or are comfortable living with ‘grey areas’.  

At times of change, we tend to experience much more ambiguity and we see that now in the development of educational leadership. New roles are evolving and can be hard to neatly define at either a system level or local level. One of these is the role of the executive headteacher. As this role develops, so too does its effects on other leadership levels such as that of the stand-alone headteacher.  

"Change never occurs in isolation and so the development of the executive headteacher role is creating ripples across the system."

The executive variations

Our research into executive headship, which we conducted last year with NFER and NGA, showed how varied the executive headteacher role can be. We defined an executive headteacher as “a lead professional of more than one school; or a lead professional who manages a school with multiple phases; or who has management responsibility significantly beyond that of a single school site”.

In practice, this could mean anything from being seconded to deliver school improvement in another context, to leading across the phases of an all-through school, to leading one school but also a Teaching School Alliance. The system is still working out all of the things that an executive leader can be. 

For anyone aspiring to executive headship, this can create uncertainty around career development. It can feel hard to identify which skills to develop for a role that varies so much by context. However, our research showed that across contexts executive headteachers need to be able to think strategically, look outwards and build partnerships, foster cross-school collaboration and to be able to coach and develop others. Although the balance between these skills will vary, all of them are relevant. 

"Executive headteachers need to be able to think strategically, look outwards and build partnerships, foster cross-school collaboration and coach and develop others."

The executive role is not just ambiguous at the system level. Locally, governors and boards can also be uncertain about exactly what they want from an executive headteacher. In some cases, our research showed that executive roles are co-developed between leaders and governors who see a need for strategic leadership. In other cases, a role might be created by a governing board but without clear definition of its purpose or lines of management and accountability.  

For example, in a seminar room full of school leaders last Friday, I heard some describe situations where schools that couldn’t recruit a headteacher had decided to create an ‘executive’ role to make the job more attractive. However, it was unclear exactly how they expected the headteacher to act at an ‘executive’ level. 

Even if an executive headteacher starts with what seems a clear remit, as the schools’ needs change or more schools join the group, their role has to keep evolving.

One contributor to our research last year explained how she had transitioned from providing school improvement support to one school while substantive head of her own, to leading across five schools as the executive headteacher. Although she now needed to act quite differently, there had never been a definitive point where the role transformed. It had changed organically over time. 

Ripples in a pond

Change never occurs in isolation and so the development of the executive headteacher role is creating ripples across the system. One ripple affects those who would traditionally have worked as the stand-alone headteacher of a school.

Adding an executive leadership layer often coincides with the creation of a 'head of school' role: a more senior position than a deputy headteacher, but one where you still have another layer of leadership above you. It contrasts with ‘traditional headship’, where the buck stops there. 

In the seminar room, we discussed the benefits and costs of the emergence of the head of school role. The role can be a step to stand-alone headship but working with an executive head can sometimes create tensions around the distribution of responsibilities.   

"Becoming a head of school can be a very effective stepping stone for those interested in, but not quite ready for, stand-alone headship."

Thinking first about the benefits, headship can sometimes be described as a lonely role. There have always been ways to overcome this through building strong networks, but working with an executive headteacher, or indeed in any structured school grouping, offers a much more direct way to reduce the isolation of the role. 

The opportunity to become a head of school can also be a very effective stepping stone for those interested in, but not quite ready for, stand-alone headship. You are working with an executive leader who, in the best circumstances, can support you as you take on new responsibilities. They can be a source of expertise, of feedback, of confidence and of ongoing development as you find your feet in a new role.  

However, this raises questions. Who is accountable for the school’s performance when a head of school is working with an executive leader? In particular, whose position is actually at risk if performance drops or doesn’t improve? What happens if you find yourself working with an executive leader who is not willing to take a strategic perspective and instead becomes involved in the day-to-day operations of the school? What happens if your executive headteacher values your contribution as a head of school, but is not supportive of your aspirations to progress to be a stand-alone headteacher? 

The future is...

These questions assume that stand-alone headships will still exist in the future. But if school groupings are becoming increasingly common, how many stand-alone headships will exist? In which case will executive headteachers be willing and able to step back and give heads of school sufficient autonomy to develop all the skills needed to progress upwards to the next level of leadership, or will the system create a gap in its own leadership pathway?  

Some of these questions are easier to answer than others. For example, while it can be a difficult process, it is possible to establish clear lines of management and accountability if the role of the head of school and executive headteacher begin to overlap.  

An example of this came from an executive headteacher in our research who was the third person to take on that role. When he arrived, he found staff circumventing the head of school and going directly to him with operational questions. This undermined the head of school and meant previous executive heads had been so occupied with the day-to-day running of the school that they were unable to create space for strategic activities. However, this executive head quickly recognised the behaviours and began re-directing all staff to the head of school.

Once staff realised they wouldn’t get a response from the executive headteacher they stopped approaching him.

It’s harder to answer questions about the future of leadership. Even in a room full of experienced school leaders, with wide-ranging experiences, we were in no position to predict the future of stand-alone headship. As more schools move into groupings, only time will tell whether there is a place in the system for the stand-alone headteacher role. 

In the meantime, system leaders do have the capacity to succession plan in their own trusts and, as a development organisation, we can continue our research into evolving forms of leadership so that we are preparing the next generation of leaders for these roles. We’re working hard to stay at the forefront of system knowledge. 

It’s an interesting time to be researching educational leadership in England and, given the opportunity to shape these roles as they evolve, it can also be an exciting time to be a school leader. But it does need a good dose of tolerance for ambiguity too. 


Read the report on executive headship or our summary of research into effective school leadership


Executive Educators: Executive Heads is our development programme for current or aspiring executive heads.

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