Legacy of leadership is key to academy success

John Freeman
Friday, October 14, 2011

There are some serious issues to be resolved under the government's academies programme.

Nevertheless, on the central point over whether schools should be able to become academies and gain autonomy from local authorities, I am generally neutral. There is no reason to believe that a resolution cannot be found to the issues that exist. But at the same time, there is no overwhelming evidence that structural change has, in itself, resulted in substantial and sustainable improvements in standards. This is true for all the structural changes in the school system since 1988 – local management, college incorporation, grant maintained schools, foundation schools, trust schools and now academies.

So, what does make a difference? The evidence is clear and unambiguous. The quality of leadership is what separates the satisfactory from the good, and the good from the outstanding. This applies for all institutions, from FTSE 100 corporations to NHS trusts, local authorities, colleges and schools. This is why the National College for leaders in schools and children's services was such an important development.

The problem is that excellent leaders move on. We can all point to schools that have been outstanding, but went rapidly downhill when leadership changed. Even outstanding institutions can prove fragile. So the challenge for governing bodies is twofold. First, they need to appoint an outstanding leader. Second, they need to ensure resilience in top management, so that when the leader moves on, the organisation does not fall apart.

The structural constitution of an institution has almost no impact on these key issues, so politicians' love of structural change is a red herring. All this becomes evident, not immediately, but in the second and third generations of leadership. The pioneers and the innovators are not the problem, but their successors may be. The real test of academies and academy chains is how effectively they deal with succession.

John Freeman CBE is a former director of children's services and is now a freelance consultant Read his blog at cypnow.co.uk/freemansthinking

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