The future of school leadership and the role of non teachers – what does the NHS teach us?

November 14, 2016

Last week, Future Leaders, Teach First and Teaching Leaders jointly released a study into the possible supply and demand for school leaders until 2022. The headline conclusion is that across the leadership cohort: defined as assistant head, deputy head, headteacher or head of school, executive headteacher or CEO – there could be a shortfall of between 14,000 and 19,000 school leaders by 2022, affecting almost one in four schools in England

One of the recommendations of the report was “Expand pool of candidates for executive roles: Attract people from other professions into teaching leadership roles and provide them with training and ongoing development and matching them to opportunities”

This isn’t a particularly new idea; it has been suggested off and on since at least 2007 (and quite probably before), when the then DFES commissioned PWC to do a ground breaking piece of work on school leadership identifying good practice and making recommendations on a projected leadership crunch. And in his first interview, the new Director of New Schools Network Toby Young also called for non teachers to be appointed as school leaders, telling the Times that “Part of running a successful school involves being a good manager. People who have had a lot of managerial experience should be able to bring a lot of that to bear on leading a school”.

It’s hard to actually find out how prevalent non teachers are in school leadership roles, but my guess is that it is almost zero at individual school level. In his roadshows, Sir David Carter has stated that 6% of MAT CEOs are not former teachers, and is encouraging this to increase.

There are good arguments both for and against bringing in non teachers into executive leadership positions and it’s by no means an obvious decision. ASCL, for example, takes no formal position on the issue but is not opposed to non-teachers in education leadership, recognising that school leadership has diversified with the growth of groups of schools in multi-academy trusts

My own view is there is a difference between an individual running a single school as Headteacher or Principal, who probably ought to be a teacher, and a CEO, where it strikes me that there is little rationale for restricting this role to ex-teachers.

What really irritates me is one of the lazy points of comparison that’s often flung around when this idea is floated, with the NHS, and the idea that “we wouldn’t as a country accept non clinical professionals running hospitals, why do we denigrate professionalism in education, etc etc”.

And the trouble is that this isn’t true. Let’s have a look at the backgrounds of people who do run some of the top performing hospitals in England (to be specific, this will look at NHS trusts, which can be in charge of more than one hospital – and as such is very analgous to an Academy trust CEO role)

We can define top performing in two ways. The first is to look at all NHS Trusts graded as Outstanding by the Care Quality Commission– the NHS regulator. This is below, in alphabetical order.

NHS Trust Chief Executive Clinical Professional?
Frimley Park Hospital NHS Foundation Trust Sir Andrew Morris


Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust Sir Leonard Fenwick


Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust David Evans Yes
Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust Sir David Dalton No
St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust Ann Marr No
The Walton Centre NHS Foundation Trust Chris Harrop No
Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust Marianne Griffiths No


Conclusion: One clinically trained Chief Executive in the Top 7 performing NHS Trusts

The other thing is to look at the backgrounds of those individuals deemed to be the highest performing in the sector, regardless of the performance of their Trust. To do this, we can look at the respected Health Service Journal (HSJ) list of “Top Chief Executives”, published annually, and judged by a panel of experts. The 2016 ranked list is as follows:

Chief Executive NHS Trust Clinical professional?
Sir David Dalton Salford Royal Foundation Trust No
Dame Julie Moore


University Hospitals Birmingham Foundation Trust and Heart of England Foundation Trust Yes
David Sloman Royal Free London Foundation Trust No
Sir Andrew Morris Frimley Health Foundation Trust No
Pauline Philip Luton and Dunstable University Foundation Trust Yes
Sir Andrew Cash Sheffield Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust No
Sarah-Jane Marsh Birmingham Children’s Hospital Foundation Trust and Birmingham Women’s Hospital Foundation Trust No
Clare Panniker Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals Foundation Trust Yes
Joe Rafferty Mersey Care Trust No
Paul Mears Yeovil District Hospital Foundation Trust No
Cally Palmer The Royal Marsden Foundation Trust No
Julian Hartley Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust No
Claire Murdoch Central and North West London Foundation Trust Yes
Anthony Marsh West Midlands Ambulance Service Foundation Trust Yes
Sir Michael Deegan Central Manchester University Hospitals Foundation Trust No
Tracy Taylor Birmingham Community Healthcare Trust Yes


Conclusion: Six clinically trained Chief Executives in the Top 16 annual HSJ list

So it is demonstrably untrue that the NHS does not draw from a wide leadership pool, either amongst its highest regarded Chief Executives or its top performing Trusts. Part of this reflects the longstanding existence of the NHS graduate management scheme which almost all of the non clinical chief executives went through. But part of it also reflects a mature understanding that running a large organisation, many times bigger than even the largest current MAT (Dame Julie Moore in Birmingham, for example, oversees a £1.4bn budget) requires management skills above all else. Every NHS Trust has a Medical Director who sits on the Board, and is responsible for clinical practice and governance within the Trust, and Trusts will also have a Director of Nursing responsible for that element of the workforce. These senior roles sit alongside other executive roles covering finance, estates, HR and so on, meaning that the Chief Executive can come from any one of these specialisms when taking on the top executive role.

The future direction of the school system will place increasing importance and weight on the role of Multi Academy Trusts. The responsibility on Trustees of a MAT is to choose the best individual for the job, and to ensure that as a Trust, they have oversight of all issues and can monitor the performance of the Trust through the executive team. It would be wrong to say that moral purpose, public sector ethos and high performance can only be achieved through an ex-teacher or headteacher.

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