Middle leaders are firmly on the agenda as we understand more and more about the vital role they play in school improvement. A school-led system has middle leaders at the heart of it. Organisations as diverse as SSAT, Teaching Leaders and NAHT Edge are all focused on their development. The Department for Education is expanding a secondment programme from thirty high-performing middle leaders to a hundred. Even Ofsted now explicitly look at middle leaders as part of the leadership and management of a school.
Middle leadership in the latest Ofsted framework
- 156: Inspectors should consider the quality of middle leadership in the school and:
- the extent to which schools are adequately developing their middle leadership
- the succession planning and development of future leaders in the school
But who are these middle leaders, what qualities do they need and how do we help to grow them in our schools? In my role I have the pleasure of travelling the country each week, visiting schools and meeting both senior and middle leaders – often discussing those exact questions. They’re increasingly pressing issues, as our recent research with more than a thousand school leaders found that recruitment was a growing challenge for all roles, but most of all when it comes to hiring experienced teachers such as those with a Teaching and Learning Responsibility or ‘TLR’. Many schools have to re-advertise or even withdraw such roles – never finding anybody suitable. And this will only store-up trouble later on. You can bet we’ll have a head teacher recruitment crisis in the near future if we don’t get the support and incentives in place now for our middle leaders. As it stands just a third of middle leaders fancy the top job in school and only half of deputies do.
And yet many schools and groups of schools seem to manage it, building up a strong, talented and motivated middle leadership team. Based on my experiences of seeing some such success stories here are seven suggestions for how a school can grow and develop a healthy stream of talented middle leaders, as well as some questions to prompt your thinking. I’m sure many schools are already doing these things or have taken different approaches, in which case do get in touch to share your own good practice. In this era of tight budgets and school-to-school support it’s more important than ever that we share ideas, challenges and solutions.
1) Start by clarifying the school strategy and priorities
Re-examine your vision and strategy documents through the eyes of your middle leaders. Is there a detailed enough articulation of what‘s expected and needed from them, both now and in the future? How are you assessing whether they have sufficient expertise in the right areas to drive things forward? What’s the plan to help them make-up any gaps and have they bought into it?
Start with their teaching and learning capabilities. Are they expert in all the basics of pedagogy, is their knowledge up to date and informed by evidence, and are they spending most of their time in classrooms – both supporting others and teaching themselves? Mill Field Primary School in Leeds was judged outstanding by Ofsted this year, including for leadership and management. Middle leaders were singled out for driving improvement by still being ‘fully involved in the checking of pupils’ progress’.
Next think about their leadership and management duties, what does good look like at your school and do middle leaders understand and agree with what’s expected of them? Mill Field’s middle leaders were praised by Ofsted because the ‘impact of their actions is being felt across the school in the high levels of collaboration amongst staff’. Does everybody at your school understand the approach for evaluating staff performance? This is especially important for middle leaders because they’ll be doing it with other staff. You can make use of regular appraisals, professional standards and other competency-based frameworks. You can also look at what other schools are doing, sending staff to see them in action and discuss strategies with their leaders. A bit of research online will find a wealth of resources too. Are you encouraging questions and ideas from your whole leadership team, enabling them to seek out a range of different sources of advice and support to inform practice at your school. Are different people given clear tasks, such as examining evidence that can help inform the practice of teaching, managing or leading.
- Do you know how middle leaders support your school strategy?
- What skills, knowledge and experience do they need?
- What culture do you have now and what do you want to create?
2) Systematically spot and nurture talented people
Having identified and agreed the qualities that middle leaders need, check that your school’s approach to identifying and supporting potential leaders is systematic and transparent. It should include those who have those qualities now as well as those with the potential to develop them in the future. It’s usually better to be as open as possible about both what those qualities are and the school’s process of identifying and nurturing them. There should be clear roles and responsibilities for those involved, including governors for more senior positions. You can work with other schools on talent spotting, recruitment and CPD too, to encourage impartiality and fresh thinking. Equality and fairness should be baked-in to the whole process, informed by the nine protected characteristics and the community the school serves.
It’s always important (and efficient) to nurture talented people internally. All staff, including middle leaders, should have clear development goals they’re working towards. But do these personal goals align with the wider school strategy and are they supported by a systematic approach to CPD? Again middle leaders can lead on different parts of the CPD offer. External expertise can be valuable but with tight budgets it’s important to evaluate such suppliers thoroughly – middle leaders can ask for evidence of impact, external indicators of quality and speak with others who have worked with them. There’s also a lot that schools can do for themselves. If established properly, mentoring and coaching programmes can help staff to develop each other. Middle leaders can ensure there are clear expectations and guidance for those involved, as well as evaluating how effective it is. Again, connecting with other local schools can be effective, widening the pool of people involved. Middle leaders are often active in professional learning communities, usually around their stronger subjects. Such communities can be a mix of in-person and virtual, but you can ask your middle leaders to bring any learning back in to school to share with others.
- Does everybody know what a good middle leader at your school looks like?
- When hiring are you casting the net widely to find the best possible people?
- Are middle leaders involved in developing a systematic approach to CPD?
3) Think creatively about resources
Schools are having to do more with less, so are having to think holistically and flexibly about resourcing their middle leadership positions. Establishing a wider network of people can allow for sharing talented individuals across schools, either using informal agreements or more structured arrangements, such as secondments. If you think back to the qualities middle leaders at your school need to support the strategy, chances are you may not always need full-time permanent roles to give the school what it needs. Sharing staff across other schools can be one solution. The CfBT Schools Trust is working in this way, building a team of subject specialists, each working across three Trust schools. Such roles can be demanding, requiring both teaching expertise as well as the ability to engage and influence busy colleagues. You can also be flexible about contracting arrangements, but make sure staff are consulted properly and are crystal clear on the relationship. It’s always good practice to have a rigorous documentation process for such discussions, to avoid any confusion in future.
- How is your school connecting with other local schools?
- Are your middle leaders visiting and hosting other middle leaders?
- Does your school have the skills it needs across the whole team?
4) Develop a plan for investing long-term
Often the best way to get the middle leaders your school needs is to grow them from within the school. That takes time and a clear, long-term strategy. Three of the six schools in the Primary Advantage (hard) federation in Hackney form a Teaching School. This combined with their relationship with the UCL Institute of Education (IoE) gives them access to new teachers through the full range of routes into the profession, including Schools Direct. It takes time to build up such relationships and capacities internally, but they can give you more options as well as access to a wider range of teachers and skills. The size of the federation also creates capacity, allowing senior leaders to work in other schools, both within and beyond the six schools. This then allows their middle leaders opportunities to step, from just a few days a week to full-time.
- Is the school engaging with talented new people from a range of sources?
- Is there a one, three and five year plan for bringing NQTs to the school?
- Which partners is the school working with?
5) Build-in spare capacity where you can
Leadership development and succession planning should be continuous processes at your school, rather than isolated episodes. However things don’t always go to plan. That talented middle leader you’ve been developing for years, investing time and resources in, may end up taking a job elsewhere, or go on m/paternity leave at a crucial moment. Try not to put all your eggs in one basket, building a broad team of skilled middle leaders. Again connections with other schools can help.
- Have you got an annual plan for CPD and different succession scenarios?
- Do you have a clear sense of each middle leaders’ strengths and ambitions?
- Can you plan hand-over periods, to get new post-holders up to speed quickly?
6) Give people challenging opportunities
The best way for many middle leaders to develop is by learning on the job. However those I meet often get responsibility quickly without sufficient support to go with it. That’s not really about salary, that’s about creating a process that feels manageable, allowing them to build confidence and experience over time. Not everyone wants to or is able to be either a middle or senior leader. Greater responsibilities don’t have to be permanent but it helps if people understand exactly what they’re signing up for. Often a good ‘leadership’ experience can encourage them to want to step up and take more on. The opposite is also true, so plan carefully. Our members talk about the satisfaction they can get as middle leaders from helping children across the whole school and by working alongside their teachers. Nearly all teachers seem to be perfectionists, wanting to do their best for their children. Becoming a leader is different, as you start to work indirectly, succeeding through others. That requires a degree of letting go, which can be particularly hard for new leaders. The most effective schools seem to give their middle leaders and those they work with a healthy mix of both structure and space.
- How are middle leaders at your school encouraged to take time for reflection?
- What can you offer your most talented middle leaders to hold on to them?
- How are you balancing responsibility and accountability for middle leaders?
7) Make sure they have good role models
The recent ‘workload challenge’ highlighted how much school leaders can influence practices within their schools. Middle leaders are often the ones moderating work, helping colleagues with marking and supporting data collection. Schools can work with their middle leaders to identify efficiencies and avoid practices that don’t support learning. Middle leaders are also role models for staff, setting the culture of the whole team, so it’s important they can access positive role models themselves. Senior leaders can set the tone when it comes to issues such as work-life balance by practicing what they preach. I know one head teacher who insists on always shutting the school gates by 4.30pm on a Friday, going home himself to encourage his team to follow suit. Leaders have a duty to shield colleagues from some of the pressures of the job, sharing only those challenges and responsibilities that people can do something about. But they can also share the joys and satisfaction that only come with leadership, having a positive impact on a wider group of colleagues and students. Middle leaders can influence the whole feel of a school so encourage them to both share insights from colleagues and to be positive.
- Is the school culture and mood discussed openly and regularly?
- What positive anecdotes and stories are middle leaders hearing and sharing?
- Are middle leaders connected with role-models within and beyond the school?
(a version of this blog first appeared through my former day-job, for the SSAT journal)