Let MAT CEOs become national leaders of education, says DfE advisory group

“Transformative” academy trust chief executives and improvement directors should be allowed to become national leaders of education (NLEs), a government advisory group has said.

Admission to the NLE programme, which involves leading headteachers using their skills to support challenging schools, has traditionally been restricted to the headteachers of individual schools who meet certain eligibility criteria, such as a ‘good’  Ofsted rating for their leadership and management.

But an advisory group formed last January and chaired by prominent academy trust head Ian Bauckham has recommended that eligibility be expanded to include “strong leaders with a demonstrable record in school improvement, whether as a headteacher, MAT CEO or other leader accountable for school improvement across a MAT”.

While it was technically possible under the old system for academy trust bosses to become NLEs if they also served as school head or principal, this is not the reality for many CEOs, especially those of large trusts.

Ministers paused the recruitment of NLEs in May 2017, pending a national review of system leadership. That review was eventually launched last year, alongside the government’s new recruitment and retention strategy.

The review concluded that the NLE designation has been “weakened”, and that the programme in its current form “does not fully address the demands of the system”.

Under the group’s proposals, leaders will be eligible if they are a “turnaround head”, a “beacon of excellence” or “transformative MAT CEO”.

“Turnaround heads” will be those with recent experience of raising a school’s Ofsted grade to at least ‘good’, while leaders will be considered a “beacon of excellence” if they are the headteacher of an ‘outstanding’ school with strong performance and progress data.

To be a “transformative MAT CEO”, leaders will have to be in charge of a trust “with strong performance and progress data” and must have experience of moving at least one sponsored academy out of the ‘requires improvement’ category. The group has also recommended that other MAT leaders with experience of improvement, such as regional directors, be considered in this category too.

According to the advisory group, a new selection and designation process should be implemented, including a “paper exercise” to test knowledge, alongside an interview.

Ministers should also implement a high-quality national training programme for NLEs and form a body responsible for designating NLEs and for reviewing their designation following a 3-year designation period, the review said.

The group has also recommended that NLEs be given a “clear remit”, with a new set of standards, after warning that the DfE’s “insufficiently defined expectations” have contributed to the weakening of the programme.

The eight-strong advisory group is made up of four academy trust CEOs, representatives of the Department for Education, Teaching Schools Council and Confederation of School Trusts, and the head of a voluntary-controlled school.

The DfE said it would be “taking forward recommendations” but has not said which will be implemented.

“National Leaders of Education have a fundamental role to play in our education system in sharing their expertise to strengthen school leadership and help underperforming schools to improve. It is therefore vital that we have the best people in place, with the right knowledge and experience, to do this,” a spokesperson said.

Schools Week reported last December that the number of NLEs had fallen to 1,065, down from 1,319 in June 2018 a decrease of more than 19 per cent.