The Glass Ceiling


I've been reflecting on my role as a School Business Leader (SBL) in recent weeks; not least because I have just completed my twentieth year working in schools delivering and leading support services. I talk about that particular journey in the June/July edition of  Education Executive (subscription) and I also admit that I sometimes think that I would like to be the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a Multi Academy Trust (MAT).

Back in December 2010, when I did the Advanced Diploma in School Business Management, I concluded that I had a high degree of autonomy in my role but that it was dependent on the leadership style of the Principal and the level of trust and confidence that the Principal had in me. Seven years, 3 major building projects, academy status, sponsor status and a primary school later this still holds true. The changes in the sector - and particularly the academy sector all have implications for the SBL. Many more schools are in formal collaborations and there are increasing Trust level roles. SBLs like me have grown into 'Chief Operating Officer' (COO) roles as their school develops as a MAT, frequently working with the headteacher or Principal as their role becomes that of the CEO looking after several or even many schools.  Latterly I have seen several COO roles in MATs advertised - sometimes also encompassing the role of Chief Finance Officer (CFO), and sometimes focusing solely on the business and operations side.


In business, according to this article  in the Washington Post, the role of the COO is in decline, with duties often re-distributed or CFOs taking a more hands-on approach to operations, thus broadening their portfolio of experience and making their chances of promotion to a CEO position more likely. The COO role in business is also one that serves one or more purposes, characterised here as executors, change agents, mentors, other halves, heirs apparent or valuable players the company wishes to retain, but the decline is cited as being linked to 'improvements in the management capacity of CEOs, or changes to succession planning made to encourage a breadth of talent'.  UK MATs are somewhat different from Fortune 500 Companies of course. The MAT COO job description will be as diverse as for COOs in business but it will almost certainly be about leading support services, and the majority of MAT CEOs will have educational backgrounds and will be focused on raising educational standards across the group. In fact, the ESFA’s preferred model seems to be that the CEO is drawn from the pool of those with previous headteacher experience. An experienced MAT COO may well have deputised for the CEO, may well understand the strategic direction of the organisation and have used their skills to drive it, may understand what good school leadership looks like and what would need to be in place to drive up standards, but I would argue that they will rarely be seen as the 'heir apparent' or ‘CEO in waiting’ should the CEO leave. I would argue that a successful head within or outside the group would be sought and I believe that part of NASBM's journey to Institute Status should include research informed debate about school structures and organisational leadership in the rapidly developing academy sector.



 Reflecting on my own School Business Leadership  journey this year, I realised I had reached a cross-  road. It has been an incredible journey at my  current school over the last ten years, but I started  to feel that there was not so much more I could do.  Looking at the job ads, I also realised that there  wasn't a huge amount I could do elsewhere in the  sector - other than more of the same in another  school or MAT. I had hit a Glass Ceiling. It was, t  therefore with some trepidation that I applied for a very different role with a large schools’ group and am delighted to say that I'll be starting as Head of Growth with United Learning in October. I'm excited at the prospect of the next stage of my career and hope that I will continue to learn about and contribute to the wider education sector. Needless to say, ?I’m bringing my glass cutter with me. 


By Micon Metcalfe - August 2017