0370 270 6000



Education 10 year vision

What leaders do we need?

Supported autonomy relies intrinsically on strong leaders. In order to deliver the current vision as outlined in the White Paper, the panel agreed finding and keeping high-quality school leaders was essential. There was consensus within the panel that the requirement for strong leaders extended beyond schools and school groups and into for example RSCs (although the panel’s

discussion mainly focused on the former). One panel member argued that there was a “failure of imagination for us to split [leadership roles] into education and back office; it isn’t that simple”. Building on the theme of part one, it was felt the strands of education and organisational leadership needed to be addressed through ‘organisational design’.

There is no doubt that current reforms mean that the sector is rethinking how it leads teaching and learning. The promotion of a self-improving system and initiatives such as the teaching school programme have already created momentum here. Critically, with the rise of academy groups, the sector is tackling what approaches are needed to provide:

  • leadership within a school
  • leadership across a group of schools
  • leadership across the sector.

The panel agreed it will be increasingly important for academy groups to consider a move away from traditional leadership models. Distributed leadership has seen rising prominence within the the sector recently and has its roots in education. Evidence suggests it can contribute to school improvement and pupil achievement, not least by generating capacity. Does shared influence and mobilising leadership at all levels offer a sensible answer? If so, how do we create the right conditions for this model to be successful?

An arguable advantage of distributed leadership is the shift in focus away from the characteristics of an individual leader. In a world of developing multiacademy trusts (MATs), we frequently see the identity of a particular leader enshrined in an organisation’s identity. Charismatic leaders may have launched many a successful MAT but this can place great challenges on the task of succession planning.

Whilst there was a feeling that MATs provided a good development group for future leaders by providing a tight-knit group of schools, there was concern within the panel about those not in MATs. This clearly needs to be addressed.

It will also be important to tie in thinking here with career options and career pathways. The Education Select Committee considered this in 2012 in its report ‘Great teachers: attracting, training and retaining the best’. In particular, its report noted “Our inquiry also heard numerous arguments in favour of more structured career progression opportunities for teachers, in particular for those who do not want to become school leaders.” The Committee’s report then described the Singapore model’s three career ‘tracks’:

  • Teacher Track (Senior Teacher through to Principal Master Teacher)
  • Leadership Track (Subject/Level Head through to Director General of Education)
  • Senior Specialist Track (Senior Specialist through to Chief Specialist)
A key feature of the approach is the ability to move at different points between tracks.

Current challenges

There was a general consensus amongst the panel that “there is a need to address the deficit we have currently got in terms of preparing people for executive leadership roles and to establish the pipeline that is coming through”.

In an era of ‘System Trusts’ (Sir David Carter, the National School Commissioner’s vision for those trusts managing more than 30 academies), the type of leaders required will surely change. Members of the panel were also keen to emphasise that with the size of the school system (over 20,000 schools) it is important not to forget the small schools or small groups. 

It was recognised by the panel that it is probably fair to say that most people who are now in leadership roles began their professional life as teachers, and moved into leadership and shifted away from the classroom (particularly in secondary). The growth of academy groups means it is increasingly likely that future leaders will also be recruited from outside of the sector. The panel also discussed that the traditional model of a substantive head teacher for each school or academy is also coming under increasing pressure; there has been a rise in the number of executive

head teachers for many years and now we are increasingly seeing academy groups (and not just chains) looking at regional models of leadership and governance. The panel expressed a broad range of differing opinions about the future for small schools, (less than 400) operated outside MATs or groups. What the panel were in agreement on was that the system was “very wedded to the concept of a school being a building, no matter how many kids it has in it and that building has a headteacher” and that we needed to be far more visionary about how we use a hard pressed education budget to deliver the best outcomes for pupils.

There is an increasing conflict between the need for a leader of systems and a leader of pedagogy. Many outstanding head teachers do not have the capacity, ability or desire to become, in the words of the Academies Financial Handbook, ‘senior executive leaders’. Running a successful school can look very different to running a successful multi-academy trust and some would even go as far as to say that the head teacher role for a small primary will no longer exist in ten years. One panel member felt the speed of these reforms is currently “out of kilter with the maturity of the workforce”.

It was also recognised by the panel that some current ‘head teachers-in-training’ have never been outside a multiacademy trust but, equally, some people have not had the luxury of growing within a multi-academy trust and enter it afresh which can create its own challenges.

The numbers of schools now operating as part of multi-academy trusts has increased substantially over recent years although many are still within small groups. In July 2016, there were 973 multi-academy trusts (although 681 of them operated three or less academies). The latest version of the Academies Financial Handbook is seemingly uncompromising in setting out the requirements for multi-academy trusts to appoint a chief executive officer and a chief financial officer. The scale on which many multi-academy trusts are starting to operate also means that having expert HR, IT and procurement personnel within the organisation is vital. Some schools may be able to make use of existing school business managers and support development initially. However, as the trust develops and becomes a larger multi-academy trust, the role and complexity of the tasks faced become more complex requiring new skills. Indeed, some panel members felt that in ten years’ time, there is unlikely to be any call for the ‘school business manager’ as we currently know it. The recruitment need for such skilled individuals is becoming obvious but, to date, does not appear to have attracted any real engagement from ministers.

The teacher recruitment crisis is well-publicised and evidence suggests it is attributable to both a shortage of applicants and an increase in the number of teachers leaving the profession. There is a concern that becoming a leader means abandoning the classroom and relationships with students. Add this into the mix with the challenges of the role itself means leaders of the future will have to balance the scale of the job and stress of the regulatory regime schools and academies operate in. However, as one panel member put it “screwing down the same screws” is not going to work when the risk associated with being a leader is now so much more palpable.

 The state of the problem is you need to find 1500 CEOs and 1500 FDs in a more or less fully academised system. 

roundtable delegate


A key aspect of the challenge is to be visionary and resist the temptation to focus too much, in terms of resources on trying to implement solutions to address the current reality, without also looking far enough ahead to ensure a co-ordinated plan is in place that is fit for the future. Developing leaders is not a short process.

Our current leaders have had to react to significant Government reforms with a substantial number of CEOs having not only to ‘learn on the job’ but to do so at a time when the job and its scale is constantly changing. Now is the time to set out a clearer plan at sector level as to how future leaders will be supported and developed. Whilst many MATs understand that they need a leadership development strategy, there is now a pressing need for a sector driven leadership development strategy. The panel strongly felt that this strategy “has to be sector led but we do need Government to get behind that effort”.
Fundamentally, the panel agreed that the sector needed to take the lead but because of the nature of the challenge, it was vital that Government played its proper role in supporting system change. To date the Government has provided, in the words of one panel member, “warm words but nothing systematic”.

Critically, this means that at some point the Government is going to have to provide meaningful financial support to back the sector’s efforts. This is particularly important when you consider the squeeze on school finances that will inevitably fall on some schools with the implementation of a fair funding model. It is also crucial that the Government takes this seriously with a proper plan for delivery, including KPIs. The current reactive arrangements and comments in the White Paper, in the eyes of some panel members, “feel amateurish”. Ultimately, in terms of professional development, the system cannot just be left to work itself out; it needs funding, focus and fostering.

The panel felt that the demand is for leaders who inspire both the community and the organisation, but determining the “DNA of those leaders” is a tricky task. Some common themes did emerge from the panel including:
  • CEOs that are the “servant of headteachers, not the master of them
  • individuals with “tremendous peripheral vision
  • individuals that are comfortable to make the best use of “freedom within boundaries”.

 The role of the government is to invest in system changes. 

roundtable delegate
When it comes to identifying where different types of leaders and wider experts are going to come from, members of the panel felt there may need to be room to challenge the assumption that CEOs must have an education background. The view of the panel was that between the CEO and CFO role, a business background is required but perhaps the sector can be more creative than a simple black and white split.

In terms of the organic development of these future leaders, which is where many schools will need to start, the panel recognised the advantage of the multi-academy trust structure is that there is more flexibility to retain quality personnel. However, as well as feeding ambitious staff with opportunities, schools must remember that the inevitable stresses and strains of the job mean a career priority for many individuals’ today is often not status but just working in a supportive environment. The panel felt there may be scope to reflect on practices in the private sector, in terms of recognition of ‘excellent employers’ and ‘best places to work’.

The high stakes nature of the current landscape may be seen by some as deterring talented future leaders from taking up key roles. Others may well argue that it is the perfect breeding ground for developing those individuals with the right skills needed. What is clear is that the issues discussed in part one at our roundtable on regulation and accountability clearly have a symbiotic relationship in terms of addressing the sector leadership issues.

The National Standards of Excellence for head teachers outline the high standards which are applicable within a self-improving school system. Designed to inspire public confidence in leaders and secure high academic standards, they can be interpreted in the context of each individual leader and school, and are designed to be relevant to all head teachers, irrespective of length of service in post. It is of course, not compulsory to apply these standards, they can be used by head teachers to shape their own practice and professional development, by governors to support recruitment or to provide a framework for training middle and senior leaders, aspiring to headship. This probably does not go far enough and perhaps they should become compulsory to support wider public confidence.

Finally, there was recognition right across the panel that a key starting point is to ensure that teaching is seen as a high quality and high status profession. The National College of Teaching clearly has a role to play here. However, to achieve this, it is critical that Government and the sector genuinely work together to deliver public confidence in regulatory bodies, school leaders and the examination system.

Browne Jacobson would like to thank the key education sector stakeholders who attended our latest roundtable discussion, chaired by Mark Blois, Head of Education at Browne Jacobson.

This report reflects the thoughts and views that were introduced in a white paper Browne Jacobson issued in preparation for the event and then developed at our roundtable. It puts forward a series of key recommendations for further consideration by stakeholders on delivering an effective accountability and regulatory regime and about what the sector needs to do to support the development of the next generation of leaders. In the report, where we refer to the panel, we are referring to the attendees of the roundtable as a whole.

The content of this report does not reflect the views of any one individual who attended or the organisation they represent. The information and opinions expressed in this report are no substitute for full legal advice, it is for guidance only.

Download the report

This report is also available as a PDF that can be downloaded below.

Download PDF

Mark Blois

Mark Blois

Partner and Head of Education

View profile

Roundtable delegates

Mark Blois, (Chair), Partner and Head of Education
Browne Jacobson LLP

Paul Barber, Director
Catholic Education Service

Debbie Clinton, Board Member
Freedom and Autonomy for Schools - National Association

John Fowler, Policy Manager
Local Government Information Unit (LGiU)

Ty Goddard, Co-Founder
The Education Foundation 

Hugh Greenway, Chief Executive
The Elliot Foundation Academies Trust

Ian Hickman, Chief Operating Officer
Northern Education Trust

Emma Knights, Chief Executive
National Governance Association

Nick MacKenzie, Partner
Browne Jacobson LLP 

Fiona Millar
Writer and education journalist 

Stephen Morales, Chief Executive
National Association of School Business Management 

Lord James O’Shaughnessy
Floreat Education 

Diana Owen, CBE, Chief Executive
L.E.A.D. Multi Academy Trust 

Cathie Paine, Deputy Chief Executive
REAch2 Academy Trust

Simon Parkinson, Chief Executive
The Co-operative College

Malcolm Trobe, CBE, Interim General Secretary
Association of School & College Leaders