How did schools come to talk like business?

Headteachers and leaders of academy trusts should be paid well, says Anita Kerwin-Nye. Just don’t justify their high salaries with the language of the corporate boardroom

I have written before for Schools Week about the importance of language influencing practice, particularly in inclusion.

Perhaps it is now time to consider how easily we have adopted the language – and with this the practice – of for-profit businesses.

I don’t believe any charity or school leader wakes up one morning and decides to demand a £300,000 salary; or to set up a profit-making company on the school grounds that benefits them personally; or to sell resources developed with crown copyright for personal gain. I think they start out driven to make a difference for children and young people.

Trustees are referred to as directors

But it has happened – and it’s called the boiled frog syndrome. If you place a frog in boiling water it jumps straight out. But if you place it in cold water and turn the temperature up, it stays there until it dies. We have turned up the temperature on individual benefit: whispered for-profit nothings into the ears of our school leaders and teachers.

The language and practice of the transaction has gradually entered the education landscape. Trustees of multi-academy trusts are interchangeably referred to as directors. We talk about learning from business when we seem to mean learning from for-profit models. Gradually individuals have been primed to move from public benefit to personal; from free sharing of resources developed for schools, to selling them for individual gain.

To be clear, this isn’t to suggest teachers and school leaders shouldn’t be paid well. But rather that we should be mindful that when comparing salaries with for-profit businesses, we forget that most for-profits have owners/shareholders who, when paying a high salary to a staff member, accept that this reduces their own payments.

When an academy trust or local authority pays a school leader a significant sum using funding that is owned by society as a whole, and justifies this with the use of the business term of “market rate”, have we lost a little something of what makes the education sector?

Neither are we saying there isn’t a role for the transactional – for the entrepreneurial exchange of things of value. Part of the freedoms in the new system are developing new ways of working that are likely to improve outcomes for children and young people, through new partnerships and exchanges. We see that first hand in some of the charities we work with as they increase partnerships with schools to help increase access to – for example, – the arts, or the outdoors.

It is important to recognise that this debate cannot be about finger pointing

The national leader of education (NLE) model that we strongly support is predicated upon the transactional exchange of school support improvement. But even here there has gradually been a shift to a view that it is the individual being paid £500-plus per day, when in actuality the model intended funding to go to the national support school to fund system capacity building. When former heads/NLEs then move into private practice they retain their day rates at this level (or often above), but funding moves out of the system. Where is the narrative of moral purpose, use of public funds and public benefit that allows us to discuss this without fear or favour?

It is important to recognise that this debate cannot be about finger pointing, but it must be about learning. And learning from the charity sector has its place here. Charity leaders have been running transactional “trading” activities for decades and regularly have to debate issues such as the risks of mission drift (moving mission to chase funding); charity pay to recruit staff vs funding for beneficiaries; what to sell and what to give away free.

That is not to say that the charity sector always gets it right, but its language – public benefit vs personal gain; not-for-profit; trustees and “in trust” helps to provide a frame to remind of the priorities that get us out of the bed in the morning.


Anita Kerwin-Nye is director at NotDeadFish

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  1. Mark Watson

    I agree that language is important, but sometimes too much can be made of it when trying to divine suspected hidden meanings. Trustees of MATs are often referred to as directors because legally speaking they are company directors, and when considering and understanding the duties and obligations they are subject to because of that fact it is natural to use that term.
    Just to point out how language can be misinterpreted, I see that you describe NotDeadFish as a social enterprise on the homepage of your website. Presumably there is a benefit in being seen as such. However your company is not a member of Social Enterprise UK, the national body for social enterprise. Social Enterprise UK also set out what they think are the six characteristics of a social enterprise. The first of these is “Have a clear social and/or environmental mission set out in the governing documents”. I’ve had a look at your governing documents, and it appears your company is a private limited company owned 50% by you and 50% by your co-director. It is set up using standard commercial Articles of Association which means there is nothing in there that has any reference to a social or environmental mission. I also couldn’t see anything on your website which set out what your mission is that justifies calling yourself a social enterprise.
    Please don’t take this as an attack on you or your company. I don’t know you and as far as I know NotDeadFish is an incredible organisation that is the epitome of social enterprise principles. Really, I’m not trying to be aggressive or confrontational and you certainly shouldn’t feel the need to justify yourself.
    All I’m trying to say is that its easy to take language and attribute meaning and importance to it when none was intended. Directors of MATs are called directors because they are. When it comes to paying teachers we don’t use the term “market rates” because we refer to pay scales (which are just codified market rates). There are no such thing as pay scales for MAT officers so ‘new’ terms (at least new in education) need to be used.
    To quote the Freud cliche, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”.

  2. Stephen Fowler

    “from free sharing of resources developed for schools, to selling them for individual gain”
    Consider two scenarios: 1) those in education give away their materials for free 2) they are able to sell them and make money
    – Which of the two scenarios is more likely to produce better resources for others to use?