We need to reform the academy system – and stop the power-hungry super-heads

24 October 2016
The Guardian
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Our schools have become joyless, stressful places, run by principals who behave like football managers obsessed by tables. Why do we put up with it?

This week’s Newsnight investigation into greedy “superheads” of academies coupled with headline claims about other heads involved inmoney-grabbing and cronyism has thrown a spotlight on to the role of headteachers. Is it right that the pushy ones are paid a great deal more than the prime minister? Do they have too much power to hire their favourites and sack whistleblowers?

This species of head is dying breed; you might find a smattering in the outer reaches of rural counties, but I would hazard that in all our major urban areas an “upgraded” model has appeared. This new type of headteacher is not even given that sobriquet but is usually dubbed a “principal” – an import from the Charter School system in America – and has a distinctly corporate air about him or herself.

This creature usually wafts about in designer clothes, and is often not yet 40 years old. They have not risen through the ranks, but been trained through a programme like Teach First (which aims to catapult “talent” to the top quickly) and have proved themselves not by having years of experience under their belt, but by having devised a high-profile scheme which they have shown or “spun” (depending how charitable you feel towards them) as being hugely successful.

They are all obsessed by data, spreadsheets and “raising levels of attainment”, and are brilliant networkers. They are usually great at schmoozing with the right people and may well be very well-connected, either developing a prominent social media profile or through their contacts. Most, though not all, are from socially advantaged backgrounds.

These fresh-faced, suited and booted principals are wily political operators who are hideously impressive when you meet them: they have sorted out the issues of our country’s educational ills with their mastery of the data and implemented “evidence-based interventions” (they like to use medical jargon) to ensure “all the needs of students” are met. They jump on whatever bandwagon is going; at the moment it is making sure your school has a “mastery curriculum” and is “knowledge-based” – we need to teach children more facts! There is also the obsession with imparting British values to “hard-to-reach” children, and much talk of the need for both students and staff to “disclose” any information which suggests radicalisation.

I worry though that this type of principal is at best self-serving, and at worst corrupt. They have come from the academisation of schools which has put enormous power in their hands with very little genuine accountability.

A little-known fact is that once a school joins a multi-academy trust (a chain of academies), the trustees of the MAT, which normally includes the headteacher, have the power to disband the governing body of the existing school and replace it with a “local governing body”, which is essentially a rubber stamp for whatever the trustees decide. This means that the very structures of MATs lend themselves to power-hungry, greedy heads.

To make them joyful arenas of learning, we need to turn down the heat on our schools, which are reaching boiling point. We need to radically reform the academy system, jettison school league tables and take steps to stop the scum rising to the top.

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