Are schools' managers solely responsible for their success?

9 February 2018

School cuts campaign cuts throughThis time of year has become known among a few of us who look out for these things as academy results season.

That is not a reference to exam results, by the way, but – in perhaps a telling commentary on the (globally unique) focus of English education policymaking in the past 15 years – academy financial data.

For academy accounts have to be published on websites by 31 January. And this year’s reporting feast has focused on a familiar theme: large pay packets for trust chief executives.

We had, for example, the at-once-staggering-and-at-the-same-time predictable news of the first person working in English state education – Sir Dan Moynihan of the Harris Federation – to be awarded a pay package costing his employer more than £500,000.

A married couple running another chain – Steve and Paula Kenning of Aspirations Academies Trust – were revealed as having had £400,000 spent on them by that organisation in 2016-17, bringing their total cost to that trust over four years to more than £1.6 million.

And the combined cost to England’s largest chain, Academies Enterprise Trust, of employing first one, and then another, chief executive during 2016-17 was also £400,000.

So, how on earth can these packages have been awarded, given the pressures of schools funding over recent years? 

In amongst the outrage in reaction to these revelations, an occasional dissenting voice can make itself heard on social media.

At least in some cases, and especially in the instance of Sir Dan Moynihan of Harris - with its unblemished record of good or outstanding Ofsted reports and its at-face-value impressive performance in league tables - the argument can go along the lines of “they’re worth it”.

In other words, if a leader of schools is presiding over an organisation which is generating success for both itself and its students, why should we quibble if we add tens or even hundreds of thousands of pay onto their remuneration, even while schools are struggling to afford the basics for their pupils?

Does not the very act of doing so help to incentivise those leading schools to strive to make them as successful as possible?

These arguments, of course, are borrowed from the private sector. But we should think through their implications for schools.

For those defending these positions have to make the case that not only should this leader benefit from his or her schools’ success, but that only they – or at a stretch only their leadership teams – should do so, at this level.

For while Harris seems to have an extraordinary number of managers earning at least £150,000 – ten, in the 2016-17 accounts – there is no evidence that such large financial benefits of pupil success are finding their way to classroom teachers.

After all how could they, to any great degree, if academies are operating on the same financial footing as non-academy schools and if all schools in England are under pressure financially?

It seems likely, though we can only guess as this important element of the way the academies system operates is hidden, that performance-related bonuses for trust leaders might be playing a part in some of these large pay packages.

Is this fair? It seems reasonable to ask, at this point, who contributes more significantly to the success of any pupil: the teacher interacting with that young person face-to-face in the classroom, or the efforts of the manager in the background?

It appears to stand to reason that the further you get from the classroom, the less direct that effect would be.

Good headteachers might well retort here, with justification of course, that they are very important in any school: they set behaviour policies, they shape the curriculum and all the learning around it, they oversee the budget, they recruit good teachers. Yet the question remains, with large-scale rewards seeming focused on the top of the management pyramid: is the balance of those rewards right?

At this point, the more sceptical observer of English education reform might respond: actually head teachers or chief executives can have a very big, more direct, effect on a school’s success rates.

Most would seem likely to have to take, to some degree, a “strategic” approach to school improvement, which focuses very closely on the institutional indicators by which all will be judged.

Worryingly, this can involve requiring pupils to take courses which will stand the highest chance of boosting an institution’s data, or, in the worst cases, seeking either to force out such youngsters as might harm its scores, or not take them in the first place.

These strategies might be very effective in boosting an academy trust’s results. They also seem likely to contribute to better Ofsted judgements, given that we know that - as of last year at least - that the inspectorate has not been noticing when large numbers of pupils leave a school part-way through their education. 

But would they be morally the right thing to do? Do they signify a system working well? Should they be incentivised? No. And what kind of sad commentary is it on the notion of public service that a school leader would need to be “incentivised” through pay top-ups on what are already large salaries to do the best by their students, or even their organisation, rather than being motivated by a sense of public service?

I am not sure anyone among policymakers has thought these issues through, beyond a belief that pay packages of this kind are used in the private sector, so will translate without problem for schools. In any case, it seems another questionable aspect of the academies “system”, finding its place on what is a mounting list of problems for the policy as a whole.

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