School leadership and the new cult of personality: some thoughts on extravagance in Academyland

May 18, 2013 — 4 Comments

Champagne flutesIn recent days there have been two significant news stories that have raised questions about financial probity and accountability in the Academies School sector.  At Quintin Kynaston School in North London, Headteacher Jo Shuter has just been re-instated following suspension for financial mismanagement (although at time of writing it is unclear if she will return to her post).  Amongst several issues highlighted, one was the spending of nearly £7,000 of school money on a birthday party for Ms Shuter. Meanwhile, Academy chain E-Act has been placed on notice by the Department for Education, for a culture of extravagance, including large sums of money spent on corporate events at luxury hotels.  The organisation’s CEO, Sir Bruce Liddington, who was paid nearly £300,000 in 2010-11, has been forced to resign.

Both Ms Shuter and Sir Bruce are significant players in the contemporary education scene. Ms Shuter was the 2007 ‘Headteacher of the Year’, whilst Sir Bruce was the Schools Commissioner under the last Labour government.

For me, both these cases echo issues I first became aware of when I worked at the University of Lincoln and it was revealed that Richard Gilliland, CEO of the Priory Academies Trust in Lincolnshire had been forced to resign due to financial irregularities. Richard Gilliland was reported to be in receipt of a remuneration package worth £230,000. However, he also used school funds in a range of completely inappropriate ways, including employing several members of his family, refurbishing school property for his own use and using the school credit card to make inappropriate purchases.  [Full details here – the DfE’s audit report and the governor’s response are lengthy documents – but really worth reading in full].

All of these cases, and others (read Julie Davies’s blog on this issue here), have rightly raised questions about accountability in the brave new world of Academyland .  Academies have greater ‘autonomy’ than LA maintained schools and the concern is that it is easier for public funds to be misused (although as Julie notes, the issues are not unique to Academies but can be found in LA maintained schools too). I do not claim to be an expert in the financial accountabilities of Academy schools and sponsors.  My understanding is that it is a complex system and consequently somewhat opaque.  That the system is not readily understood may itself be symptomatic of a problem, but that is not my principal concern here.

Rather my concern is with the wider question of whether the culture being actively encouraged in today’s schools is much more likely to generate further examples such as those illustrated by Gilliland, Shuter and Liddington.

Academy schools are based on a marketised and corporate view of education.  It is claimed that standards are to be raised by encouraging competition, whilst Academy schools themselves are meant to be lean and efficient – using their autonomy to ensure resources are deployed for their best purpose.  Academy headteachers are encouraged to see themselves as transformational leaders, guiding their staff to the top of the local league table. This was certainly the vision at the Priory Trust in Lincolnshire where, in the words of the governors, Mr Gilliland was appointed as CEO intentionally for his ‘charismatic and forceful leadership style’ (identified as ‘outstanding’ by OFSTED).  As the school developed, and Mr Gilliland was encouraged to take on responsibility for more schools then, again in the words of the governors, the expectation was that Mr Gilliland would ‘export the Brand’. The language is significant.

At one level this appeared to be successful, and there is a view in Lincoln that Richard Gilliland did a good job. So why did it go so spectacularly wrong? Was it purely a personal failing, or might there be something more fundamentally flawed in the system?

I want to argue that the problems at the Priory are in part a result of a particular culture that is currently encouraged in schooling. It is a culture that venerates the role of the school leader as a type of modern day educational entrepreneur – on a mission to save the system (from what Michael Gove calls ‘the education establishment’). It may not be fashionable anymore to talk about ‘superheads’ – but we still believe in them, and we still base education policy around them.  The cult of the personality is being recast as the cult of the school leader.

One aspect of this is the tendency for headteacher salaries to rise substantially, and certainly far more rapidly than those of others who work in schools. This is an issue that has already drawn the attention of the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office.  Of course to the new educational entrepreneurs there is nothing fundamentally wrong with this because the new educational entrepreneurs fully subscribe  to the market logic currently driving schools policy (and welfare reform more generally).  High salaries are no more than ‘the market rate’ – quite acceptable because in a market salary is a proxy for value.  In short, ‘superheads’ are paid supersalaries because they are ‘worth it’.

None of this should be a surprise – it is the inevitable logic of the system we are creating. And if we want schools to behave like businesses, we should not be surprised if those who are able, look across to their counterparts in the commercial world, and try to mimic them.  If ‘doing business’ involves fancy hotels, parties, restaurants, liberal use of the company credit card then why shouldn’t the new breed of public sector leaders do the same? – after all, they are ‘worth it’.

And herein lies the danger.  What is revealed by the cases of Gilliland, Shuter and Liddington is that these people appear to really begin to believe their own hype.  They are held up as saviours of the system, far above the mere mortals who toil in classrooms day in and day out, and they clearly begin to believe they are beyond the rules that govern the rest of us – and maybe they are, because they are ‘worth it’. They see nothing wrong with being extravagant with public money, intended for children’s education, because they believe they are ‘worth it’.  It is their just reward.  Indeed so convinced are they about their own sense of worth they begin to resent anybody who might have the temerity to question their judgement.

This is what appeared to have happened at Priory Trust, having spoken to several people involved in the issues.  For example, the local authority was clearly not able to hold the school to account, as it no longer had a role to do so.  Furthermore, as investigations revealed, the governing body were clearly out of their depth in the same regard. But equally worrying was that other checks and balances in the system were similarly ineffective.  Within the school ‘charismatic and forceful leadership’ at the Priory had made workplace union representation difficult to sustain and at least one union rep was pressured to resign (with a gagging clause as part of the deal, as I understand it). Beyond the school, the local media struggled to report the story – partly because Academy opacity made it difficult to find out what was happening – but also because local journalists who sought to investigate the issue were ‘bullied and intimidated’ (the words of a BBC journalist, describing his/her experience to me).

These may be three isolated cases, although I suspect not.  However, regardless of the detail of individual cases, and to what extent they are replicated elsewhere, my argument is that there is a much wider issue about the prevailing culture in the education system and its implications for accountability and democracy. It is increasingly apparent that a market system is creating a market culture reflecting market values. This culture does not just tolerate the existence of excessively high salaries, but positively encourages them, because they apparently reflect the ‘market rate’.  They reflect ‘worth’, and ‘value’.  Some may argue that this is acceptable in the corporate world but it ought not be the way we run our public services.  It is perhaps a sorry indictment of the world we live in that this even needs to be stated, but public service values are different to market values.  Workers in the public services, such as teachers, expect fair pay for their work.  They expect to be rewarded appropriately for their efforts, their skills and their commitment. But public service employment could never have claimed to be characterised by greed, personal aggrandisement and the pursuit of personal gain over that of colleagues.  Indeed a feature of public sector ‘fair pay’ has been relatively high levels of equity (far from perfect, especially in gender terms, but without the inequities that are currently being encouraged) – because public service values reflect a commitment to a collective enterprise – those who work in schools really are ‘all in it together’. Thankfully the vast majority of headteachers understand this, organise their schools accordingly, and work hard to retain a collective and collegial ethos within their schools whatever the pressures from outside to do otherwise.

However, the new corporatisation of schools, with high salaries, bonuses and performance-related pay for a few are a threat to these public service values. Intentionally.  They are meant to create divisions – between school leaders and teachers, and between teachers and teachers. They are meant to undermine welfarist values of care, trust, reciprocity and social solidarity – the values that underpin the welfare state and that are inimical to its recasting in a privatised and neoliberal form. That threat cannot be allowed to pass unchallenged. The recent cases of financial abuse expose school marketisation to wider scrutiny, and as such they provide an opportunity to both challenge the logic of market culture in our schools whilst also opening up a space where genuine public service values can be restated.


4 responses to School leadership and the new cult of personality: some thoughts on extravagance in Academyland

    Robert Crosby May 18, 2013 at 11:41 pm

    The subject matter is disturbing, but what an enthralling read!

    Michael Gove appears to have calculated that his dual objectives of severing local authorities’ ties with schools and destroying the teacher unions (with his attacks on their pay and conditions and the climate of fear that his “reforms” are promoting, especially within academies) are so important that he has also felt it necessary to open the door and welcome all kinds of spivs and miscreants into schools.

    Howard makes the fundamental point that academies are more secretive. This, added to the flawed neo-liberal and media-driven ‘consenus’ that practices thought (at least and at last by some sections of the population) to be completely unacceptable in other sectors – ranging from banking and financial services through to the NHS – should not be the subject of anything like the same scrutiny if practised in state-funded schools, has surely been instrumental in bringing us to where we are now?

    We must surely also question what on earth the governors of these establishments thought (or think) they are there for. I sat on a governing body that included increasing numbers of middle-class parents who somehow felt that they “lived in the real world” anbd could somehow bring their experience to bear to benefit the rest of us naive fools who didn’t share their understanding. In fact, they just wanted more personal access to the Headteacher and the right to uninformedly challenge any of the school’s established procedures that didn’t suit their own view of how an organisation and a profession that they had no prior knowledge or meaningful experience of should function. Too many of them confuse a Head who they think they can control as “innovative” and “visionary”. It has arguably become even worse since parents (who were at least subject – in theory at least – to election) have started to become usurped by the creeping menace of ‘community governors’ and that this has all contributed to the climate within which characters such as Ms Shuter and Messers Gillibrand and Liddington have prospered.

    Thanks again for this, Howard!


    Well articulated – many thanks. The public do not want education to be privatised. Anyone can see clearly that the US privatisation process has been a disaster for all but the profiteers, such a system being light years away from the justifiably well cited Finnish system. It takes a very short time for anyone researching what route we should be taking to suggest that the Finnish way is at least worth exploring. But politicians are blinded to the financial kick-backs they get from handing over education into the greedy hands of businessmen, and have the gall to call these people philanthropists! Some may be, but I would suggest that Reg Vardy, for example, is not.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Financial irregularities in academies? Who saw that coming? | Colin thinks ..... - May 20, 2013

    […] The revelations in recent days of financial irregularities at Quentin Kynaston Academy and the E-ACT academy chain are sadly no surprise to those of us opposing academies per se. Professor Howard Stevenson argues, on his blog, that this is the inevitable consequence of the new system currently ‘under construction’ rather than being down to the failings of a few individuals. Read his piece here. […]

  2. Academy Accountability | politicsbitesize - June 7, 2013

    […] Liddington, who was paid nearly £300,000 in 2010-11, has been forced to resign.   In a statement, E-ACT’s Chairwoman Ann Limb said ‘We have overhauled both the governance and the culture of E-ACT to ensure that this can […]

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