Guest Post: Put your oxygen mask on first? Supporting executive headteachers

Last week, research commissioned by the Department for Education found that headteachers struggle to find time for development and that very few leadership courses are actually targeted at executive headteachers.

Three things explain this. Firstly, as an executive head your development priorities are inextricably linked to the specific priorities and context of your organisation, meaning personalised support such as coaching is likely to be most appropriate.

Secondly, these priorities and the context are always changing, so each year as an executive headteacher is different from the last. Many leaders just learn on the job.  

Thirdly, as a leader you are more likely to prioritise the development of others rather than yourself.

But your development is arguably the most critical. As a headteacher you knew your role well and had numerous role models and peers. But now as an executive headteacher, your role is new and rapidly evolving. You have taken on a new challenge to lead across unfamiliar contexts, often where your experience, moral purpose and skills are required to turn around another school. Your ability to perform your role well is vital for the success of those schools.

To better understand executive headship and how we can better support those leading schools in challenging contexts, we conducted research last year with the National Foundation for Educational Research and National Governance Association. This research showed how varied the executive headteacher role can be.

We started by defining an executive headteacher as “a lead professional of more than one school; or a lead professional who manages a school with multiple phases; or who has management responsibility significantly beyond that of a single school site”.

Our research gave some clarity beyond this though and found that across contexts all executive headteachers need to be able to develop new skills:

  • think strategically
  • look outwards and build partnerships
  • foster cross-school collaboration
  • coach and develop others

The balance between these skills will vary but all of them are relevant.

However, our qualitative research found another major challenge. Becoming an executive head requires a new mindset, identity and behaviours that you have not experienced before. You are moving from being the leader of the pupils, parents and staff of your school to being that figure for multiple schools. You are likely to be even lonelier than before. That passion you felt for your school now needs to be shared across other schools.  

To do this well and lead others effectively, you need to make sure you are well-prepared for the journey.

It can be hard for executive headteachers to develop these skills in themselves because of the emerging nature of the role. It demands new skills without providing precedent or training, and executive heads often lack a network or peer group of leaders in similar roles.        

To address this need we have developed a portfolio of executive leadership programmes that will help to prepare school leaders for the challenges of executive headship. We have worked hard to ensure the programmes instil the skills, behaviours and mindsets required to effectively sustain improvements across multiple phases or schools.

Alongside this we have also built a network of like-minded leaders who are shaping these roles and the educational landscape in an exciting period of development for the system.

The impact, importance and number of executive headteachers is only going to grow. If we are going to grow system capacity to improve more schools then we need to capitalise on the increased leadership capacity executive headteachers can bring. That means nurturing a pipeline of executive headteachers who can meet the demands of England’s ever-evolving school system and the needs of our children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds who face the greatest challenges.

About our programmes

Our Executive Educators: Building and leading a sustainable MAT programme is designed to equip participants with the advanced knowledge and skills to implement and sustain change across a multi-academy trust (MAT) or other federation. It will support you to lead with confidence and transform the life chances of the pupils you serve.

Whereas, our Executive Educators: Leading several schools programme offers specialised training and support designed to help your transition from leading a single school to implementing change across a group of schools. Evidence-based training focuses on the skills, behaviours and knowledge specific to executive leadership, delivered by experts from across and beyond the sector.

By James Toop, CEO at Ambition School Leadership 

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Categories: Guest Post, Leadership, Training and Uncategorized.


  1. The role of the executive principal is to enlarge the empire on behalf of the system owners so they can make more profits especially once the system is fully privatised.

  2. Anonymous

    Gov2 is spot on. The executive head of our local school rules from a suite of offices miles away, supported by a small group of ex-headteacher friends, now with senior well paid roles in the organisation, but remote from schools.

    Laughably they issue a stream of petty instructions while still claiming their schools (very much ‘theirs’) are now free from top down control from the LA.

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