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Teachers won't like it, but I've discovered a way to fix failing schools

We’re running out of school heads — so let’s retrain successful managers

19 November 2016

9:00 AM

19 November 2016

9:00 AM

A few months ago I joined forces with Sir Anthony Seldon, the vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, to run an idea up the flagpole. Why not make it possible for senior managers from outside the teaching profession to retrain as heads? Anthony, who was a successful head himself, is in the process of setting up the Buckingham Institute of School Leadership to train the heads of the future. He proposed creating a mid-career and late-career entry track into this programme so successful managers in their thirties, forties and fifties can retrain as school leaders.

This idea was met with some scepticism by teachers and I can’t say I blame them. It rankles for the same reason that allowing people from outside the profession to set up free schools rankles, as well as encouraging people to teach who don’t have QTS (Qualified Teacher Status). It implies there’s nothing particularly valuable about the training or experience that goes into the making of a good teacher — any Tom, Dick or Harry could waltz in off the street and do what they do. It’s symptomatic of a failure to take the profession of teaching -seriously, which is an continuing source of resentment. If I were a teacher it would certainly annoy me.

For what it’s worth, my -experience of helping to set up free schools left me with a huge respect for the profession. None of the schools would have got off the ground without the involvement of experienced teachers as co-founders, and that’s true of most free schools — more than 70 per cent have been set up by teacher–led groups. In addition, the eagerness of free schools and academies to employ non-qualified teachers has been exaggerated. At our schools we take on non-QTS teaching staff only if they’re willing to become qualified in due course. That, too, is fairly standard.


Anthony and I are not saying business people with no teaching experience should get jobs as school leaders, which is how it has been interpreted by some. For instance, Dr Bernard Trafford, the headteacher of Newcastle and Tyne Royal Grammar School, wrote a piece for the TES last week attacking this straw man. ‘I take issue with the suggestion that leaders who have mastered the pressures and drives of commerce can similarly seize the reins of education and drive the chariot to success,’ he said.

No, our idea is that people with a strong record of managing organisations a bit like schools, such as publicly funded arts organisations, should have an opportunity to retrain as heads over two to four years. Much of the process would consist of shadowing school leaders, and trainees would graduate with QTS. This would give them credibility in their staffrooms, although they’d need to prove themselves on the job. We believe they would.

This idea has won support from two unexpected sources. One is the –Harvard Business Review, which published an article last month entitled ‘The One Type of Leader Who Can Turn Around a Failing School’. -Written by four academics, it analysed the impact of 411 English heads and concluded that the most effective ones are ‘Architects’ — leaders who take the time to work out how to improve a school, do it without alienating the staff and then stick around long enough to see those changes through. ‘Architects’ have a number of interesting characteristics — they tend to have studied history or economics at university, for instance — but the most -interesting is that most have spent between ten and 15 years working in another profession before retraining as teachers.

But the most unexpected endorsement comes from a group of teachers. Last weekend, a research paper called ‘The School Leadership Challenge: 2022’ was jointly published by Future Leaders, Teach First and Teaching Leaders and warned that by 2022 England may face a shortfall of between 14,000 and 19,000 school leaders. This is due to a lack of heads and deputy heads in the present system, the need for more leaders as more schools open to keep pace with a growing population, and the fact that many existing heads are approaching retirement age. Of the various solutions it suggested, one jumped out: ‘Expand the pool of leaders, including welcoming executives from outside the profession.’

At present, Anthony is on track to open the Seldon School of Headcraft and Wizardry in 2017. I hope some Spectator readers will think about becoming mature students. Your -country needs you.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.


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