How much is too much to pay headteachers?

Am I worth £200,000 a year? David Davies/PA Wire

The huge salaries of school “super-heads” and some university vice-chancellors has once again come under fire, this time by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee. UK headteachers are among the highest paid in the world, with good pension packages.

The chair, Margaret Hodge, and her committee pull no punches in their report, asking some hard questions about pay levels in the public sector more generally, and demanding the Treasury to “get a grip” on the high pay of education’s leaders. Their report says that the state has been slow in:

identifying and addressing seemingly excessive pay awards for some roles in the education sector, such as university vice chancellors and “super-heads” and has only recently started to collate information in areas such as the academy sector.

They argue that the remuneration packages offered to senior public servants undermine messages about the need for pay restraint for the public sector.

Academies slip through the gaps

Given the Coalition’s drive towards greater school autonomy, devolved budgets and other freedoms, it is unsurprising that pay levels are high at academies as they compete to attract the “best” heads with proven track records of raising standards.

As in other state-funded schools, it is the governing body of academies that determine pay levels of their staff. But academy chains are not subject to the many constraints and rules over pay and conditions that face other state-funded schools. A report by the Department of Education in July 2014 found that 24% of academies had used their new freedoms to change staff pay structures and that 84% of academies specifically link staff pay to performance.

Good leaders in short supply

National pay scales for heads in state-funded schools were spelt out by the School Teachers Review Body in 2014, but these don’t apply to academies. For state-funded schools, salary size is broadly linked to the size of the school and can vary along an pay spine known as the individual school range. The minimum salary is now £43,232 a year and the highest on the inner London pay band is £114,437

But recent research into headteacher performance management by the National College of Teaching and Leadership, at schools where governors or boards have responsibility for salary levels, shows that governors will often “go the extra mile” to reward their heads, for example moving them up two incremental points rather than one. Governors doing the recruiting know that good educational leaders are in short supply, especially for certain kinds of schools, such as small primary schools and Catholic schools.

In addition, the move towards a self-improving school system, exemplified by the growth of academy chains, school federations, teaching schools and school-to-school support, is requiring a certain type of leadership.

In England, we currently have about 1,000 National Leaders of Education, who are heads of schools graded by the inspectorate Ofsted as “outstanding”. A growing number now possess knighthoods. Such leaders will be needed in spades if a self-improving school system is to have any chance to succeed. To improve schools you need outstanding leaders – and not only at headship level.

How much is too much?

Multi-academy trusts, federations and chains will continue to grow and their outstanding leaders will continue to be able to demand high salaries. We know that governing bodies of state-maintained schools are more prepared to agree to “generous” pay rises when they are aware of the real dangers of their heads being “headhunted” by a local academy.

But governing bodies do not always have a good idea of what is the “going rate” for headteachers, since local authorities are no longer in a position to offer such information.

Good heads deserve to be paid well but perhaps £200,000 a year – the salary of one academy headteacher in South London – is a little over the top.

Huge pay disparities

It’s worth situating this within wider discussions about the growth of inequality and income disparities. Data from the School Workforce Survey shows that academies tend to have heads who are paid well-above the national average, some £2,500 per year more than other schools.

But their teachers tend to earn below average teacher salaries, often being young and inexperienced – or as the more cynical might say “cheap”. Teacher turnover rates can be high too in some of the more challenging schools, even if they are run by super-heads.

Different performance measures

Perhaps we should develop clear criteria for effective leadership that go beyond Ofsted’s definitions of success. Good schools led by good leaders will want to be assessed by other, more rounded measures such as pupil voice, enjoyment, self-esteem, confidence and resilience.

Leaders should be working towards a rounded or whole education. But as education researchers John Smythe and Terry Wrigley have argued, there is a real concern that “in the discourse of the new leadership, even the term ‘leading learning’ has been reduced into monitoring attainment”. They also criticise that “the complexities of social justice are viewed very narrowly through the lens of reducing attainment gaps.”

Those school leaders who buck this trend and are brave enough to change things positively are exceptional – their schools are truly outstanding and they deserve their high salaries.

In a profession that prides itself on collaboration, collegiality and teamwork, where moral purpose is the order of the day, and where it’s been shown consistently that pay is not a great motivator, one wonders why such high salaries are offered and accepted by heads, super or otherwise.