How can leadership be exerted by a non-educationalist in the schools sector?

After 14 years in local government, John Edwards recently took up a new role as Regional Schools Commissioner for East Midlands and Humber. Reflecting on his time in education and hopes for the new role, John wrote this blog ahead of his session at the Academy Ambassadors Board Development Day conference.

Everyone in education faces tests of some kind. As the new Regional Schools Commissioner for East Midlands and Humber, I am fully aware of, and embrace, the school improvement challenge in our region, and the test of leadership it presents for everyone in the sector. At September’s conference, I am hosting a session that asks ‘how can leadership be exerted by a non-educationalist in the schools sector’. That prompted me to think about what are the leadership tests that I, and business leaders joining boards, might face.

Throughout my time in local government, most recently as Director of Education and Skills at Manchester City Council, I have been able to appreciate several important factors at play in the evolution and development of the education landscape.

In all of the work I do, my motivation is to see children going to great schools and getting great outcomes. The development of strong leaders who are able to operate across schools, and groups of schools, is absolutely paramount in securing this.

I have always been a strong advocate for, and architect of, robust partnerships of schools, believing them to be the best model for securing effective governance and outcomes for young people. My involvement with academies and academy trusts in Manchester taught me the importance of securing the right people in all forms of governance, especially on trust boards, recognising that there are skills from many sectors that can be brought to school governance.  

I am very clear that good governance leads to good outcomes - and even more surely, bad governance leads to bad outcomes. Sometimes, where governance isn’t strong it may take a little while for the impact of that to be seen in outcomes for young people. This means that it is not enough to just use results as a measure of the quality of governance – qualitative assessment of the skills and capacity in a governing body or trust is essential in order to help make those judgements. As we continue the work in our region, one of the key things I am looking for is robust models of trust governance with strong skill sets and a breadth of experience.

In terms of the make-up of trust boards, I believe it is key that non-executive directors can provide challenge and support to the operation of the executive capacity, strong performance challenge for outcomes for children and a particular interest in cohorts of children who may be underperforming or particularly vulnerable, so that schools can make their contribution to securing social mobility.

Central to securing improvement in outcomes for children and young people is ensuring the financial health of the organisation. I am an absolute firm believer that trust boards should be focused on good financial health to enable a focus of resources on school improvement. Financially stable trusts can strategically deploy resources to the areas of greatest need, often the front line of delivery and teaching and learning in the classroom and securing the capacity needed – in both teaching and leadership – to deliver improvement.

I am very interested in how business can play a strategic role in the 0-19 education space, particularly given that we have two ‘Opportunity Areas’ in our patch – Derby and Doncaster. I think the role of business in those Opportunity Areas is particularly vital, not only in the obvious ways of providing great people to build effective trust boards, but also in giving young people opportunities to experience a range of different sectors and to open their minds to future employment.

I am absolutely delighted to be working in the East Midlands and Humber region; although there are evident school improvement challenges, there is also great capacity and potential and a real desire to do the very best for children and young people amongst school leaders and partners alike. We know from our outcomes, across the region, that some groups of students are below where we want them to be; the governance challenge is to improve outcomes and improve progress. This, in turn, represents a challenge around capacity: considering where the good non-executive directors/trustees come from. This is an area we will be focusing on in partnership with Academy Ambassadors.

I am looking forward to the Board Development Day conference and think it will be a really helpful opportunity for me to understand more of the breadth of experience and skills that are within the system and how they can be deployed across the country. I am always looking ahead and I am interested to find out how established non-executive directors feel that role has evolved over time, what they think is coming next and how we can pull together to improve outcomes for young people.

To join John at the Conference please register at – if you are already registered please ensure you select the Leading change: taking the Chair or making a difference from a non-executive director perspective.

Please note that conference places are prioritised for NEDs appointed through Academy Ambassadors and Chairs/ NEDs at MATs that come from outside education.