Some school leaders are taking us for fools – we need to stand up to them

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.

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  1. Julie Cordiner

    Well said Emma. There are many leaders with the right moral purpose who struggle to prove their schools are effective, because they take children with a truly diverse mix of abilities and play everything straight, but the others with no moral backbone cast a shadow over the whole profession.

    The good leaders are those who volunteer to take children who arrive at amy time of year and reintegrate pupils from Fair Access Panels; the worst are those who try to shuffle low attaining children off to other schools (if they have somehow failed to avoid taking them in the first place). Some of the behaviours I have seen in my 30+ years in education have been shocking. Searching for ‘EFA investigations’ brings more depressing revelations on the misuse of resources.

    Sadly the system now provides more opportunities to behave badly and sometimes DfE turns a blind eye to offenders. There is rampant unjustified favouritism by Ministers and a lack of transparency which allows a lot of problems to remain hidden. I’m glad you are speaking out – those of us who try to tackle it tread a difficult path. Maybe it is time for a national campaign? Unless it is challenged by those who think enought is enough, it won’t change.

  2. Not only this. Teachers are the ones doing all the work, taking all the flack and being pushed to the point of exhaustionand breaking point, while heads lap up the honours for “moving their school forward” and improving it. Many are nothing more than bullies. You only have to read sections of the education press to see the immoral way that many “leaders” treat their staff in the guise of improving childrens education. Tosh. It’s about improving their own pay packets! Teachers are becoming the equivalent of the “glorious dead” in the battlefields of Flanders while school leaders pin medals on their own inflated chests. Government policies are directly to blame for this shift. Many school leaders are not head teachers. They are not teachers and have no real insight or vision of what EDUCATION should be. They are data crunchers. Pupils are not data, they are individual human beings. Schools are not businesses. No wonder there is a stampede away from the classroom.

  3. Heather

    Surely it wouldn’t take much for the researchers to develop an assessment to show what type each Head is, see which ones are Architects (or developing to be such), and base appointments, and training, and rewards accordingly.

  4. ThePlace

    When the trustee is the heads secretary them it hardly replaces the LA. Even when a school is downgraded for leadership; governors chastised for not holding the Head accountable, they still continue to grant raises even though he is over the salary of P!M, at the expense of good teachers fired due to financial mismanagement and others reduced to part time. These governors had no excuse, since for over a decade they had an expert teacher on board, who now advises governors for the LA.
    This is an excessive salary for a head of one school failing on his watch. How much of a salary and benefits package DOES it take for an experienced head and recruiter to run DBS checks, or at least request proof of ID and recent references before letting conmen loose on young pupils?
    The saying used to be you get what you pay for. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Governing boards DO need to ask more questions and only reward those who really make the medium-term difference to pupils, not the ones who talk a great game. But do you really beliece that a head like this will that type of govermor near him? They ARE taking the rest of us for fools, and we need to stand up to them.