5 Aug '13

News Academy chains and school federations: how much autonomy do heads really have?

Nick Morrison investigates how principals and executive heads get the power balance right in their academy chains and school federations

Although the dust is still settling, it already seems clear that one of the most distinctive features of the post-local authority age is the creation of closer links between schools. In many cases this is taking the form of school chains, as formal partnership takes the place of informal co-operation.

This is also reshaping the role of headteacher. Being a head used to mean being in charge of a school; now it may not be so clear-cut. As well as a governing body, heads may find themselves answerable to an executive headteacher, who has responsibility for all the schools in the chain. And while some may relish the additional challenge, for others the potential for ambiguity holds the seeds of future conflict.

Even though she would be taking charge of a school for the first time, Ashley Leeson admits to having doubts over whether it really was a step-up.

"I couldn't see the difference between my role as a deputy head and being a head of school," she says. "I envisaged the executive head would have the main say in the day-to-day running of the school."

As well as joining a school as its head, she was also joining a chain of schools, where overall responsibility was vested in an executive role. For Leeson, as for a growing number of heads and aspiring heads, the dilemma was simple: if your school is in a chain, how much autonomy do you really have?

Two terms into her job as head of school at Woodwater Academy, a primary in Exeter and one of 13 schools in the Children First Federation, Leeson says her concerns have proved groundless.

"I don't think my role is very different from somebody who is a substantive head in a school," she says. "I have the same day-to-day responsibilities, including making sure I'm running within budget, managing the staff and working with the community. The difference is that I don't do any of it on my own."

It is this latter point that underlies the popularity of school chains. More and more schools are seeking to form ever-closer ties, but while this may provide the support they are looking for, it is also redefining what it means to be a headteacher.

Gary Chown, executive head at Children First, says federation allows the schools to centralise back-office functions, such as finance, HR and administration, while freeing heads to concentrate on teaching and learning. "We're going back to the days when headteachers focused on what went on in the classroom," he says.

He sees his primary role as developing leadership skills among his senior team, rather than deciding what goes on in school. This may mean biting his tongue on occasion, although he will "have a conversation" if he is concerned by what he sees. He also has a role in decisions on exclusions, but largely leaves the running of the schools to the individual heads.

For Steve Taylor, principal at Bristol Metropolitan Academy, a key advantage of federation is the ability to accelerate progress through support, sharing good practice and advice in the form of critical friendship from other schools in the partnership.

"You could argue that with the right leadership team and the right circumstances, there is no school that couldn't become outstanding," he says. "The advantage of a federation is you get there quicker because of the opportunities for collaboration and to learn from each other."

Bristol Metropolitan, one of 10 schools in the Cabot Learning Federation, is Taylor's second headship. He says the federation does not prescribe a recipe for success, although heads are expected to share its values. "There is room for people's own leadership styles, but there are some aspects that are non-negotiable, such as attention to outcomes and sharing best practice."

While he has not experienced any diminution of his autonomy, he concedes this may be because the executive principal, Sir David Carter, "is not unhappy" with the rate of progress at Bristol Metropolitan.

But it is when things are not going so well that heads working in federations may find their independence curtailed. And while a level of scrutiny is nothing new, executive principals may be more demanding than the typical governing body. Signing up to improving outcomes is one thing, but differences over how to get there harbour potential conflict.

As a result, some heads believe the loss of autonomy is too high a price to pay. "We like having the independence to choose to do as we wish," says Mark Farrar, principal of Reepham High School in Norfolk. "We're accountable to no-one but ourselves and we can make decisions quickly, with the flexibility of not being tied into a structure."

He is far from being an isolationist, however. Reepham works closely with its feeder primaries and has good links with neighbouring secondaries, including sharing staff, but Farrar is not persuaded that a formal structure would benefit the school, despite the claims of advocates of closer ties.

"There is a danger of becoming insular and not outward-looking," he says. "We know we have not got all the solutions, but I think at the moment the drawbacks [of federation] slightly outweigh the advantages."

But for some heads, the benefits are too good to miss. Mandy Milsom was on her third headship and had been head at Summerhill Primary in Bristol since 2007, but last September took the school into the Cabot Learning Federation, converting it into an academy in the process. Having worked with the federation over the previous two years, she was impressed by its ethos and eager to embrace the opportunity for closer collaboration. Federation also provides consistency of support: in the five years before joining Cabot, Milsom had "four or five" school improvement partners.

"I was worried about losing my autonomy," she says. "I was used to doing things my own way for a long time, but I don't feel it has been taken away."

While the Cabot Learning Federation is a relatively compact group centred around Bristol, when Nicole McCartney was appointed principal of Ormiston Venture Academy in Great Yarmouth she was joining a chain that stretched from Cheshire to Essex. One advantage of being part of a national grouping, she says, is that there is more chance of being able to identify with another school in the chain. Membership of the Ormiston Academies Trust also gives the school a share in a collective voice, she adds.

But the core benefit is being able to tap into expertise in other schools, at the same time as not compromising her independence. "Ormiston Academies Trust allows me to run my academy independently," McCartney says. "There is no feeling of 'you must do things this way'. There is a feeling of needing to do well, but I would hope everybody would have that."

All the signs are that more and more existing and aspiring heads will have to weigh up whether the benefits of joining a chain outweigh any loss of autonomy, for, with the trend towards ever-closer ties between schools, it is not an issue that is likely to go away anytime soon.

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