I’d rather have a headteacher than a multi-site executive, Sir Michael

According to Sir Michael Wilshaw, former head of Ofsted, Britain now needs a national programme for leadership of multi-academy trusts. Speaking on Tuesday night at the parliamentary reception of St Mary’s University, Twickenham Sir Michael told the crowd that “leadership matters more than anything else”.

It’s not surprising that Sir Michael says it, but the fact that it’s not surprising says a considerable amount about his influence. When he got the top job at Ofsted in 2012, as chief inspector of schools, he found that questions about leadership of a school were right at the bottom of the report forms. He swiftly put them at the top. Five years on, priorities about schools have clearly changed. Nobody today doubts the power and importance of the head in a school. When ‘superheads’ have gone into a school, as Marie Stubbs did at St George’s Roman Catholic School, Maida Vale, and Dame Sally Coates did at Burlington Danes in West London, the failing institutions were turned around.

Sir Michael’s comments about the need for a national programme for heads who run several schools at once came as he was launching such a project at St Mary’s University, where he has been appointed professor of education and director of multi-academy trusts.

One of the notable coincidences about these three educators – Marie Stubbs, Sally Coates, Michael Wilshaw – is that they are all Catholic. They took their Catholic ethos into schools that weren’t always Catholic or not necessarily that strongly Catholic. It is an ethos that focuses clearly on the child, on schools being communities with clear identities, on the God-centred bigger picture that is not just about league tables, and on discipline.

I recently visited a Catholic school for a few days (confidentiality precludes me from identifying it) and all these characteristics were clearly evident. And what was also clear was that the school’s fortunes rose or fell dependent on the leadership of the head. Sir Michael, I could see in front of my eyes, is right: leadership matters more than anything. But I could also see that the head’s strong leadership in this particular school did not depend on him being a remote figure. The respect he earned came in part because he knew everybody – not just the staff but all the hundreds of children. He knew them by name; if you mentioned a child, either for sterling effort or for causing trouble, he knew who you meant straightaway.

This kind of charismatic leader is in short supply. They’re particularly in short supply if governors, as happens in Catholic schools, insist the head teacher’s private life must be exemplary. So if you haven’t got enough candidates to be headteachers, the attractive solution might be to make one person head of several schools. This is clearly already happening: an organization like the Cabot Learning Federation has more than 10 schools in its organization and around one in five secondary schools are in some sort of network. When a group of schools are run by one head, the individual schools have their own leaders of education within them – but everyone knows they aren’t the real boss. This is a system rather akin to regional managers having to answer to the boss at HQ. And we all know that the boss at HQ can be remote and never has the time to interact with the staff, let alone the consumers of the service provided – in other words, in schools, the pupils.

If we want to understand what might happen if we go down the route of multi-academies and executive heads, thinks for a moment about a parallel example: that of parish clusters.

The Catholic Church has yet to find a better framework for pastoral care than the parish. But in days of declining attendance and shortages of priests, the solution chosen by bishops is often to support parish closures, making one priest responsible for several churches. People don’t like it, even if they know why economies of scale are dominating conversations about the future of parishes. The priest becomes distant; he doesn’t, can’t know everyone.

Catholic schools are as important for pastoral care as parishes. Do we really want the same thing to happen to our schools – to have heads looking after several schools because it’s the easy solution to staff shortages? In both the case of priests and of headteachers, some of the problems are down to the problems of the posts not attracting enough candidates of the right calibre. Should this be a moment for bishops to ask of their priests and their heads: are we demanding too much in terms of what we want from them in their private lives? In other words, could we have more priests, but still outstanding people, if they were allowed to marry? And would we have more excellent headteachers if those who divorced and remarried were as welcome as those with uncomplicated, traditional set-ups?

The Catholic Church can be proud of its contribution to education in England and Wales; its future depends on the heads it appoints. I’m not convinced the way forward should be in the hands of multi-site executives.

Catherine Pepinster is the author of The Keys and the Kingdom – the British and the papacy, to be published this autumn by Bloomsbury/T&T Clark.






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