When I was first a head, back in 2000, I had taken on a particularly challenging school and had a ‘consultancy team’ of 3 experienced heads working with me. They worked in the background coaching and advising me and, crucially, alerting me to ‘what will happen next’. The improvements we made to the school were massive and my induction into headship was absolutely amazingly good – I was constantly participating in discussions with very experienced heads focussing directly on what was required at my school. I think I must have gained around 10 years of experience in my first year.
Now I am an Executive Principal I think my practice is largely based on my reflections from those early days of headship.
These are the five things I think headteachers most need from their Executive Heads:
1. Active listening from their coach. Heads do not need to be told what is the right thing for their school, but they often need to be able to talk their way through the trees with someone who can see the wood, ask questions which help to navigate the path and feedback what they are hearing.
2. A safe group of colleague heads for completely open discussion and shared problem solving. Within MATs this should be possible; it is certainly desirable. In our Trust I have 4 Principals who have a full understanding of each other’s academies; who feel responsible for the performance of each other’s academies, and who share and deploy resources generously (including staff). The five of us as a team of principals with four academies are far more effective than one principal with one academy.
3. Being freed to lead their schools from the front. What staff and students need most from their head is someone who is visible, approachable and a real inspirational force for good, clearly articulating a vision and creating a feeling of security. Sadly modern headship places so many demands on a headteacher to be out of school and to be involved in annoying peripheral distractions, which while often important, get in the way of the head feeling effective and being valued by their staff and students. Executive Heads can and should take all that away by doing some themselves and by helping heads sieve through the garbage to what is really important.
4. Get c**p off their desk and out of their in-box. There are all kinds of energy-sapping, time-consuming hindrances to good mental health for headteachers and these are increasing. The most obvious example of these is the vexatious formal complaint, but there are also the worrying HR cases and troubling financial planning. I suspect that when heads ‘go under’ it is some combination of the vexatious complaint, tricky HR and troubled finances to blame. An Executive Head is there to make certain that doesn’t happen, to deal with the c**p while keeping the head firmly in the loop and modelling how to manage it for them. Headteachers need someone to be in charge of their health and well-being.
5. Being asked the question “how can I be of service to you?”; rather than constantly being under pressure to serve a central organisation. In order for heads to feel empowered, effective and secure, any central organisation must be in service to them. I am sad to see and hear that this has not always been the case and that some of the worst practice from the old LAs has been replicated in some MATs. But I sense things are getting better and I hope that my generation of Executive Principals/Heads are getting this bit right – if we aren’t we need to be told!
Ros McMullen is the Executive Principal of Midland Academies Trust and a founder member of @HeadsRoundtable.