Executive headteachers: key players in emerging school landscapes


Report of a meeting of the BELMAS Structural Reform RIG held on 4th April 2017

A meeting of the Structural Reform RIG was held in Birmingham on 4th April to discuss the role of the Executive Headteacher. As school structures in England are reconfigured both nationally and locally, patterns of leadership and influence are changing as new roles emerge and others become less important. Arguably the most significant - and certainly the most numerous - of these new roles is that of Executive Head/Principal. There are now well over 600 individuals holding such positions, with a variety of roles, from leading multi academy trusts and all-through schools to working on change across a number of schools. As academisation proceeds, especially in the primary sector, the number of Executive Heads/Principals is likely to increase rapidly. Yet there is, as yet, little systematic research on this important category of professionals. The purpose of the meeting was to bring together practitioners and researchers to explore what we know about Executive Heads/Principals and to help set a research agenda for the future.

The lead speaker was Pippa Lord, Senior Research Manager at the NFER who reported on the findings of on the NFER/NGA/FLT collaborative research project Executive Headteachers: What’s in a name? Pippa explored the statistics concerning executive headship, the variety of reasons why such posts are created (which she described as Improvement, Expansion and Partnership) and the range of management and governance structures within which such roles are located. Key implications of the research include the inadequacy of national datasets in relation to executive headship, the lack of any clear legal definition of the role, issues of progression to the role and development within it, its relationship to other roles, and the question of how the effectiveness of executive headship might be assessed.  

There followed presentations from three professional perspectives. Rob Campbell, Executive Principal, Impington Village College, Cambridgeshire described the way in which executive headship is developing in his small Trust; and Sue Robinson, Development Director at the Elliot Foundation, described the organic and responsive way in which executive leadership is exercised in her much larger Trust. Both placed these developments within the wider context of how executive headship is emerging nationally. Susan Cousin, who has held a variety of senior system leadership roles and is now an Associate of the London Centre for Leadership and Learning, drew on her seven-year doctoral study on system leadership to explore how the range of ways in which system leaders play their roles might be usefully conceptualised.

Finally, Professors John Coldron and Tim Simkins of Sheffield Hallam University suggested some ways of viewing the field of executive headship, emphasising the degree to which the narrative on which they are based must be accepted or can be challenged, and the interrelationship between the ways in which school groupings are emerging and the construction of system leadership roles.

Throughout the day participants had the opportunity to consider implications for future research. Questions considered included:

  • The definition of the role. Do we need one?
  • How to prepare for executive headship
  • Values and motivations of executive heads.
  • Issues of accountability. Relationships with boards and non-executive directors, and with RSCs.
  • The role of executive heads in the construction and leadership of multi-academy trusts (MATs), including their relationships (competitive of collaborative) with other MATs.
  • Longitudinal research on the effects of executive heads in MATS. What leadership behaviours are being enacted? What is good practice?

The presentations from the meeting can be found in the documents folder prefixed by ‘Executive heads’. Please note that these should not be reproduced without the author’s permission.  

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