Last reviewed 2 April 2012

As the academies revolution marches on, more and more Heads are facing the prospect of leading this type of school. In this article, Barbara Roberts looks at what this entails and how much of a change it will be.

Change is the only constant

Whether we like it or not, the world of education, its leaders and their schools are in the midst of a massive sea change.

The education sector is getting ever-more complicated, with four major kinds of maintained school, various types of academy, independent schools, and others. It can be very difficult to differentiate between them and to understand which — if any — you might be interested in leading as a Head.

The major force for change is, of course, the onward march of the academies programme. Thoughts and views, fears and trepidations abound. While some feel caught up in it all, concerned that “doing nothing” might bring about inevitable enforced changes, others have seized the opportunity to exercise more freedom and be more creative.

The voice of experience

So what do Heads feel about the pros and cons of leading an academy rather than one of the other types of school? As an ex-Head myself, and now a primary school governor and a trust board member of an all-through sponsored academy, I see and experience the reality from both sides. I asked the question of the Heads of these two establishments, and of a colleague who is a board member of an independent school which has embraced the academy revolution by collaborating with a failing maintained secondary school.

The three responses were widely different.

The primary school is a potential converter, which has not been inspected since the Head took over almost three years ago. He shared his somewhat sceptical views about conversion.

  • Small schools like his are disadvantaged because they do not have the support and back up of administration staff to oversee changes and outsource new services.

  • Should they become an academy before they get pushed — ie the Government imposes it (without start-up money) or the local authority (LA) becomes powerless with no funding or people left?

  • What real tangible difference will academy status make to the lives and education of the school’s young people? Is it purely additional funding and resources?

  • Would they be getting rid of support from the LA to simply set up their own “LA” by working with other schools?

He is not at all alone with such concerns — as a visit to such open professional forums as TES Connect and LinkedIn proves. However, on balance, there are also many other passionate, enthusiastic and talented leaders managing academies vibrantly and successfully, bringing about rapid but sustainable change and improvement in short spaces of time.

Here’s what the management team of the all-through academy thought were the main advantages.

  • Having the autonomy and flexibility to be able to have a strong creative vision and think “outside the box”.

  • The refreshing and commercial advantages of working closely with the sponsors/private sector in areas like finance, legal issues, human resources, business studies, mentors, community regeneration and development.

  • Offering a more seamless experience for pupils via an all-through school.

  • Making significant improvements in standards in every area at a rapid pace, with consistent good learning and teaching.

  • Developing a freer curriculum.

  • Having an endowment/trust fund from a sponsor to fund special projects.

  • Having a state-of-the-art, purpose-built school building.

  • Creating a business mindset to market successful services to other schools, alongside the sponsors expanding their own services to other educational providers.

This response clearly shows their energy, enthusiasm and confidence in their capacity to become the most successful school in the region — and the school of first choice.

The colleague from the independent school governing body showed similar passion.

“There is considerable interaction between the schools — pupils from both schools accessing both staff and facilities on both sites. There are joint productions in theatre and music with performances at both sites. One of our senior teachers spends one or two days a week there and the interaction is growing all the time between the academic departments including distance learning for both pupils and staff. In just two years the turnaround has been spectacular with the school going from the bottom of the area rankings to close to the top! A sixth form has now been opened and the first cohort of around 15 pupils has gone to university. Truancy and persistent absence figures have fallen like a stone. In fact, we can’t open the school early enough or close it some nights!

“There is little doubt that an academy linked to an independent school that takes a real interest can be transformational. We want to continue building on this.”

Leading an academy — what’s the difference?

The basic role of headship is, of course, quite similar, irrespective of the school’s status because of things like the National Standards for Headteachers and the National Professional Qualification for Headship. The real difference between the headship role in an academy and a maintained school is determined by how the opportunities to benefit all pupils and staff are exploited. Achieving Excellence in Academy Leadership is a useful tool from the National College for School Leadership (NCSL). It aims to move headship on and build on the national standards by:

  • demonstrating creative practices

  • establishing accountable systems

  • identifying and demonstrating the qualities and behaviours of a successful academy leader

  • considering the distinctiveness of leading sponsored and conversion academies

  • offering a set of qualities and behaviours which can be used flexibly in a range of ways — such as by individuals at various stages of their leadership journey, by academies as they develop themselves and their staff and teams, by schools converting to academy status, and by groups of academies working together to improve leadership.

Academy Reward, an article in the March 2010 issue of the NCSL’s LDR magazine, includes some thoughts from Paul Mortimer, Principal of the Isle of Sheppey Academy in Kent. He said that it would be too simplistic to suggest academy leadership is necessarily different from other forms of headship or indeed that you need to have previous secondary experience. However, he was clear that his 21 years’ experience in 5 headships enabled him to take on the challenges of leading an academy. He said: “This is an exposed job in a highly charged environment.”

Here are some of the main points raised by the article.

  • There is a need for political savvy and strong communication skills — not just with the usual four stakeholders (pupils, staff, parents, community) but also with sponsors and within the business and extended professional world. This might include the media, legal advisors, accountants and organisations like the Education Funding Agency.

  • Many academy Heads have to work with multiple sponsors from a variety of backgrounds: colleges, universities, LAs, small and large companies, and independent schools. He or she needs to be able to develop a collaborative vision with them in order to convert transformational strategies into practice. This will probably involve some juggling of distinct agendas.

  • Continuing professional development, in all its forms, is of prime importance, allowing academies to build leadership capacity from the inside out.

It is quite clear that schools choosing the academy route which are not outward looking and not interested in working with other schools may well fail to develop and are likely to be less successful.

Context is king!

The expectations for an academy Head have to vary from one school to another. When responsibilities are transferred to the trust and governing body, it is up to them to decide which ones they pass over to their Head. The following all come into play:

  • their important contextual core values

  • their vision and mission and an interpretation of how these will look in practice

  • how they see their relationship with the Head

  • the Head’s prior experiences, talents, skills and creative abilities as a leader.

It’s also important to take into account how the school became an academy.

  • Is it a sponsored academy, usually fairly well established, which came from a base of low attainment and usually low socio-economic background, with an urgent need for rapid improvement?

  • Is it a more recent converter, a harbinger of success, outstanding practice and high attainment?

This is paramount in determining the aims and subsequently the beliefs and motivational elements of the trust board, which are either shared with or passed onto the Head.

This means that as far as academy Heads are concerned, context is king! There will always be many similarities across the role — such as the need to be entrepreneurial, innovative and passionate — but each Head will tend to either inherit or create ambitious and/or creative challenges that require specific elements of leadership skills, and knowledge and experience.