Posted in leadership, school leadership, teaching

The hidden costs of ‘superheads’

Back in 1996, when Tony Blair was leading the Labour party, he made a speech pledging to position successful headteachers in local failing schools, painting a picture of  ‘superheads’ akin to superheroes, swooping in to rescue failing schools.[1]

In 2013, Nick Clegg voiced his desire to introduce a nationwide ‘champions league’ of superheads with attractive financial incentives, and in 2015 the Conservative government actioned its new programme, introducing superheads into ‘coasting’ schools.[2] [3]

superhero
Image credit: PublicDomainPictures.net

While it is widely known that superheads receive comparatively huge salaries, almost a decade after Tony Blair’s speech, research into the true cost of superheads has revealed the real price that schools are left paying once their superheads depart, and the costs are not purely financial.

Although the superheads programme was met with some scepticism, time has provided a number of success stories proving the positive effect superheads can have on struggling schools. Figures from the Centre for High Performance also show that, during superheads’ appointments, exam results consistently improved.[4]

Successful methods of improvement turned over in researchers’ findings included positioning outstanding teachers with Year 11’s and restricting timetables to provide pupils almost achieving a C grade with the best teachers. These methods stirred up questions about the sustainability of the improved grades, as positioning all the best teachers with particular pupil groups could mean that other pupil groups would miss out on the ‘better education’ received by their peers and/or seniors.

Similarly, every superhead in the study had focussed on raising attainment in maths and English, but this came at the expense of other subjects such as drama and dance.

The study also found evidence of another popular yet questionable method employed by superheads to boost exam results. Researchers sourced management information data suggesting that 18 of the 21 superheads in the study attempted to persuade parents of low-ability pupils to educate their child from home, and removed the pupils from exams if their parents did not oblige. However, this accusation was met with denial.

Despite the ‘quick-fix’ success these methods had in driving up exam results during the superheads’ employment (an average of 9 percent improvement per year), pupils’ exam results fell by an average of 6 percent after the superheads’ departure, with further decline in the following three years. The decrease in results proved worse the longer the superhead had been instated; results from schools with a superhead for three or more years dropped by an average of 9 percent following the head’s resignation.

The researchers compared these results with those of schools without superheads and saw that these schools had achieved a gradual and constant improvement over the five year course, without forking out £70,000 to £100,000 per year for a superhead salary.

On the financial side, the researchers discovered that superhead salaries, plus the costs of consultants employed as a means of support following their departure, resulted in bills of between £350,000 and £1.8 million for each school over the five years. These costs were higher the longer the superheads were in place.

One impassioned researcher, Alex Hill, believes that the superheads programme is short-sighted, encouraging damaging short-term behaviours rather than helpful long-term strategies. He was quoted in Schools Week, saying: “When a school emerges from a period with a superhead, you’ve lost three years, sometimes longer, and you’ve spent a load of money you didn’t need to. You are now behind where you could have been both in terms of the impact on students but also on your community.” (McInerney: 2016)

While these recent findings, and their researchers, have a rather negative outlook on the superheads programme, there doesn’t seem to be an alternative model on offer for such rapid attainment improvement in the short-term, which throws into question whether, for those looking for the ‘quick-fix’, superheads are worth the costs.

On the other hand, as suggested by the researchers, it could also be argued that, for the amount of money the programme costs, during the head’s term and in the following years, short-term, unsustainable results are not worth the price.

While some might argue that the 21-school sample studied may not be big enough to be representative of all schools with superheads, the figures clearly show a pattern suggesting that more needs to done to support the sustainability of the results of the superheads programme.

[1] Judith Judd (1996) ‘’Super heads’ to rescue schools’ <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/super-heads-to-rescue-schools-1314808.html> [Accessed: 18 April 2016]

[2] Rowena Mason (2013) ‘Clegg plans headteacher ‘champions league’ to boost struggling schools’ <http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/oct/24/clegg-headteacher-champions-league-schools> [Accessed: 18 April 2016]

[3] Richard Garner (2015) ‘New government programme is parachuting super heads into ‘coasting’ schools’ <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/schools/new-government-programme-is-parachuting-super-heads-into-coasting-schools-10343397.html> [Accessed: 18 April 2016]

[4] Laura McInerney (2016) ‘Superheads: the true cost to schools’ <http://schoolsweek.co.uk/superheads-the-true-cost-to-schools/> [Accessed: 15 April 2016]

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