The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Liz Worthen

Developing sustained, effective middle leadership: keys to success

With middle leaders as the vital cogs in the wheel of school improvement, how can we best enable them to operate smoothly and effectively?

‘There was a common thread in schools that struggled over many years of persistent weaknesses in middle leadership.’ (Ofsted annual report 2014/15)

‘It’s not about 100% change, it’s about 100 people changing by 1%.’ (Alan Roll, headteacher at Waseley Hills High School)

Recent Ofsted reports have emphasised the key role that middle leaders play in school improvement – and the negative impact of ineffective middle leadership.

It’s a tough role: middle leaders often end up as the buffer between senior leaders and teaching staff, balancing meeting the demands of one while trying to motivate the performance of the other.

In researching for our middle leadership essentials training programme, we found some of the most commonly referenced challenges to be:

  • difficult conversations with colleagues and conflict management
  • sharing and getting buy-in to a team vision
  • time management and juggling priorities e.g. teaching, management, strategic leadership
  • managing changes to assessment and the curriculum
  • delegating tasks appropriately
  • monitoring effectiveness of staff and providing feedback. 

Roddy Fairclough, headteacher of Newbury Park Primary School, in talking with Optimus editor Suzanne O’Connell about the challenges of the middle leader role, described it thus:

‘Middle leaders are trying to manage the complexities of teaching and leadership: a kind of half-way house that doesn’t know whether to stick or twist. They must be excellent practitioners and understand their role as leaders. It’s the leadership aspect that needs developing.’

Recruitment challenges

The 2014/15 Ofsted report acknowledges the challenge of recruiting skilled middle leaders, particularly in schools perceived to be underperforming over a long period of time.

The report identifies some common factors among secondary schools deemed as ‘less than good’ in their last four inspections. 

  • Schools with a more disadvantaged intake than other schools in the area.
  • Schools smaller than the average size for a secondary school.
  • Variable quality of middle leaders, with a lack of accountability and rigour in monitoring teaching and standards. 

Below average-sized schools are likely to have subject leaders managing small teams – which can have an impact on succession, with frequent staffing changes. Combine this with a potentially more challenging pupil intake than neighbouring schools, and there is ‘a particular difficulty in recruiting and retaining strong and experienced subject leaders’ (see paragraphs 133-137 of the report for more detail). 

Loving the ones you’re with

So what can heads in these hard-pressed schools do to improve the calibre of their middle leadership?

Alan Roll, headteacher of Waseley Hills High School in Worcestershire, is a fan of the Dylan Wiliam approach: the ‘love the one you’re with’ strategy of investment in professional development and creating environments that promote continuous improvement. 

When Alan joined Waseley Hills as headteacher, the school was deemed ‘satisfactory’. They made the journey from ‘requires improvement’ to ‘good’ by developing and challenging their staff – not by hiring and firing.

‘We’ve chosen to develop the staff rather than recruit new members,’ Alan explained for our case study. ‘It’s perhaps a slower process but it is more sustainable.’ The school has created a climate that nurtures younger members of staff and develops the skills they need as middle leaders.

Most subject leaders have stayed in post during the seven years that Alan has been headteacher and of the new heads of core subjects (singled out for praise in their latest Ofsted report), two are internal appointments.

Alan’s advice?

‘If there is a problem with your middle leaders, look at what the barriers are. Are they lacking skills or confidence? How can you grow them? Think hard before removing anyone.  It’s not about 100% change, it’s about 100 people changing by 1%.’

What makes an effective middle leader?

But what are the essential skills for excellence in middle leadership? A key question, which ‘think and action-tank’ LKMco set out to answer on behalf of Teaching Leaders in their report ‘Firing on all cylinders: what makes an effective middle leader?

Perhaps not surprisingly, their research found that team and interpersonal skills were highly rated as factors in effective leadership, as were being professionally informed and willing to innovate.

More interestingly, their evidence suggests that we shouldn’t underestimate the value of old-fashioned organisation and management of systems and resources. Having a team leader who can get you enthused and bought-into a vision is great – but you also want to know that there are exercise books in the stock cupboard and that the exam entries have been done.

The LKMco report identifies six facets of effective leadership:

  • communication and diplomacy
  • being open, consultative and collaborative
  • knowing and developing a team
  • following procedures and systems
  • being bold, innovative and resourceful
  • being professionally informed. 

Context counts

These traits all sound like great things to aim for. But it’s important to recognise that barriers to middle leadership excellence may be institutional rather than personal: school cultures can enable middle leaders – or they can make their lives very difficult.  In reviewing previous research, the 'firing on all cylinders' report highlights several potential barriers.

  • Poor senior leadership: failures at the senior level are likely to be replicated at middle leadership level.
  • Unsupportive or strongly hierarchical structures: research suggests that a culture of collective responsibility is most conducive to high performance.
  • Time pressures: the variety and number of performance and policy-related tasks which middle leaders are expected to carry out can be crippling. 

So what can school leaders do?

Sort out your structures and leadership

The recent (and somewhat controversial) report by the Centre for High Performance on successful school turnarounds recommends focusing on leadership before other areas of school life: ‘Do improve governance, leadership, and structures first. Otherwise, you’re putting great teachers in a position where they fail — they’ll waste time doing or managing the wrong things.’

Consider your school culture

Do you encourage collective responsibility? What more can you do to balance collaboration and innovation with accountability?

Reduce or prioritise tasks

What do you really want your middle leaders spending time on? What are they currently doing which isn’t vital to pupil progress? Are they getting the best administrative support?

Provide professional development

What training do you provide for middle leaders? The reports and case studies referred to above all reference the importance of professional development in equipping middle leaders with the skills to do their job well. Optimus members can access our middle leadership essentials training programme which focuses on some of these core competencies.

Champion their cause

Whatever else you do, remember that middle leaders need a supportive SLT if they are to fulfil their potential. Provide the oil to keep those cogs turning smoothly!

Aspiring to senior leadership?

Find out how to prepare for a senior leader role in our webinar Aspiring to senior leadership - preparing for interviews, and get advice on:

  • how to develop leadership abilities through identifying strengths and weaknesses
  • how to prepare for senior leadership interviews by self-assessing your skills
  • coaching methods to use when preparing for an interview
  • the qualities that make a good leader and how to show them in an interview.

Register for the webinar

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