The high-stakes accountability system is no excuse. Schools are funded by public money and it’s time to reclaim their moral purpose, says Emma Knights.

Tight budgets and policy changes are making it tough for many in schools at the moment, whether you are a teacher, a school leader, a governor or a trustee.

So, it’s an awkward time to be raising the thorny issue of how we reward our school leaders. But – with apologies to all those fabulous senior leaders who deserve huge amounts of praise, and all those governing boards doing a magnificent job overseeing schools – I do agree with Sir Michael Wilshaw when he said on BBC’s Newsnight recently that not all governing boards are making the right decisions when it comes to leaders’ pay.

Last week’s research from the Centre for High Performance (CHP) crystallised National Governors’ Association thinking after our own work on executive pay. As academy accounts are in the public domain, it is possible to work out which trusts are paying salaries disproportionate to the number of pupils educated.

We had raised our growing concerns with the Department for Education (DfE) and the School Teachers Review Body (STRB), and applaud Lord Nash, the minister with responsibility for academies and governance, for his 21 October letter to chairs of academy boards of trustees in which he reminds them there is no room for complacency, including on “excessive salaries for senior staff which are not linked to their performance”.

But that is not the end of the matter: we have been pushing for benchmarking information on leaders’ pay to be made available for a couple of years and STRB has also suggested this would be helpful to governing boards making these decisions. A complete free-for-all has not resulted in sensible practice.

Not all governing boards are making the right decisions when it comes to leaders’ pay

However, the CHP research highlights an even deeper problem: we appear to be paying the least to leaders who make a long-term difference, and more to those only making a short-term difference, largely by gaming the system. Calling it “gaming” gives the wrong sort of feel to this: it is not a bit of fun. Refusing to accept or moving out pupils who are not doing well is a serious business, which in some places has reached shocking proportions.

Sadly, I overheard two business staff of academies on a train journey who agreed “the reason that school is not doing well is they will take any pupils and that doesn’t make business sense”. Apparently this school was in the throes of becoming part of one of their multi-academy trusts, pending negotiations with the DfE to see how much additional resource the trust could obtain.

Since I began working with schools, I have heard the excuse that the “high stakes” accountability system forces people into this immoral behaviour.

We shouldn’t blame the system for our own choices. We are bigger than that. We are not mere actors; we are decision-makers with knowledge and experience who need to reflect and say enough is enough. For me, hearing about the CHP data was that moment of “enough now”.

We need to reclaim “moral purpose”, or maybe better, revert to “public duty”. The Nolan principles of public life – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty – need to be taken to heart and become the bedrock of behaviour. Schools are funded by public money to do the best by children and young people. Governing boards paying large rises to already well-paid senior leaders when teachers’ pay is stagnating and budgets are tightening is not financially efficient; even if it were moral, it would not be good business sense. It is particularly inefficient if we can’t even identify the leaders who do the best job.

Governing boards need to ask more questions. Surely together we can devise a system that rewards those who really make the medium-term difference to pupils, not the ones who talk a great game, seek attention, but have no real substance. They are taking the rest of us for fools, and we need to stand up to them.