Firing on all cylinders: What makes an effective middle leader?


29th July 2016

‘No school can be a great school without getting the middle leadership right’ says James Toop, chief executive of the charity Teaching Leaders. But what does it mean to be a great middle leader? At a time of rapid curriculum change and increasing concern about teacher retention, it is a question in desperate need of an answer. Indeed, could inspirational but efficient middle leadership provide an under exploited lever for school improvement?

Today we’re launching a new report for Teaching Leaders which suggests it might – and here’s a lovely visual summary of it from @ImpactWales.

The report analyses middle leaders’ effectiveness, how they go about their role and what helps and hinders them in their job. The report is based on three sets of data. First we analysed data from English, Maths and Science departments that were headed by Teaching Leaders Fellows and compared their departments’ performance to the rest of the school. This meant we could look at performance in context and see when school A’s maths department particularly stood out from the rest of the school. We then looked at their Head of Departments’ assessment centre scores from when they applied to the Teaching Leaders Fellows programme to see if any measures were particularly linked to high performing leaders. Secondly, we surveyed 123 Teaching Leaders Fellows and alumni and asked them about their role, priorities and how they spent their time. Third we picked four middle leaders from a random sample and four from ‘stand out’ departments and visited them to carry out in-depth interviews and identify anything particularly distinctive about the outliers. As part of the visits we interviewed 24 middle leaders, line managers and department teachers.

  • Firstly, our research revealed that leadership is not just about soft skills; management is key too. Any teacher who has walked into the store room to find there are no board pens left or battled with a badly put together timetable and time consuming systems knows what a difference good planning and resource management makes. Of all the priorities they listed, how much middle leaders prioritised performance management, planning and resource management and managing data were the strongest predictors of their department’s relative performance. This area was also the single most frequently mentioned aspect of an effective middle leader’s role in interviews. As Gill, a senior leader explained:

“It’s okay to have the vision… but you’ve got to get people doing things that are important at the right time… planning lessons, delivering lessons within a structure… making sure that people are following behavioural systems, that if there’s a particular methodology to how things should be taught, they’re following that, checking up on that. But also getting people marking the books, you know, getting people doing the things around routines that are vitally important to the running of the school.”

Yet no department is an island and our interviews showed that in order to implement clear procedures and systems within their departments, middle leaders need senior leadership to promote these same systems across the whole school. One middle leader argued that their departmental systems for managing behaviour were undermined by weaker behaviour management across the school.

  • Secondly, our findings showed that strong team relationships are a distinctive characteristic of great heads of department. It became clear that without their teams behind them, middle leaders could not achieve their goals. Indeed, leading teaching and learning and setting vision and direction for their teams were the two activities which the middle leaders we surveyed were most likely to identify as ‘very important’ aspects of their role. Our interviews went on to reveal three dimensions to teamwork: being consultative and collaborative, being diplomatic, and knowing and developing the teachers within the department. As one middle leader explained:

“I think it’s about knowing your team members, knowing their strengths and weaknesses and being able to develop them and know who’s suitable for what task so you can get the best out of each one.”

  • Thirdly, whilst the team and the systems are key, we also found that in high performing departments leaders tend to be particularly ‘professionally informed’, always finding time to engage with policy changes and cutting edge research. Pete for example explained that:

“I’m very interested in the wider picture… keeping abreast of research and policy changes and just the general kind of what’s going on in education nationally at the moment and I do that through, mainly online actually through Twitter and blogs and things like that. That’s a really big thing for me, keeping abreast of current issues.”

As well as tapping into external research and ideas to inform their work, at the other end of the cycle, the best middle leaders also spent much more time on self-evaluation and this was the self-reported behaviour with the largest effect on a department’s relative performance.

But not everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet; we found that teachers, middle leaders and senior leaders tended to emphasise slightly different things. Teachers focused on middle leaders’ ability to delegate and senior leaders were more likely to talk about them being results-driven. It also seems that senior leaders may be applying the ‘no excuses’ mantra to middle leaders as well as pupils, since they were less likely than heads of department themselves to comment on factors that could hinder middle leadership’s effectiveness.

As always, it seems the challenge for senior leaders is to get the right balance between high expectations and empathy.

Andy Buck, Dean of the Leadership Faculty at Teaching Leaders, identifies the following main messages from the research:

“Much of this research is helpful to put some data and evidence behind what we inherently know about the key tenets of effective middle leadership. Reading the research reminded me of the important tension between leadership and management within this role. All too often the leadership qualities of vision, culture, team are emphasised, at the expense of the critical importance of management, systems and processes. These are the main messages from the research, drawing on experience as a headteacher and working with Fellows on Teaching Leaders programmes:

People matter

  • It may seem obvious, but building strong relationships with your team really matters.
  • Getting that engagement through a real clarity of purpose, effective two-way communication, managing conflict tactfully and, most importantly, through supporting your team to grow professionally, builds strong discretionary effort and an effective team.
  • People who feel more engaged with their work and their team are also much more likely to remain in their role. Middle leaders play a crucial role in increasing teacher retention.

A tightly run ship

  • They may not always seem as important, but making sure you do the basics well is crucial. It frees up your team to focus more on what they should be doing – focusing on the quality of teaching and pupil progress.
  • Meetings should be well run, processes for lesson and curriculum planning need to be fit-for-purpose and lesson observations and data analysis need to be effectively executed.
  • Ensuring you have readily available, accurate pupil performance data, good systems and processes builds the effectiveness of the team and their willingness to go the extra mile as they can see they are working in a properly planned and organised team.

Playing to strengths

  • Knowing where your team members’ strengths lie and planning for opportunities for them to take a lead in these areas is a great way of sharing out the workload of your team and enabling them to grow and develop, so long as you do this in a way that is seen as positive and supported.
  • Delegating is an important and yet difficult skill for middle leaders, as it is often very tempting to just do something yourself because you can usually do it better and faster!

Being well-informed

  • Despite the pressures of day-to-day school life, the best middle leaders take the time to keep up-to-date with the latest research and evidence, both around their subject area and the wider education and leadership contexts. They also spend more time self-evaluating to see how they can improve.
  • Taking an evidence-informed approach to decision-making and prioritisation can have a strong positive effect on the performance of a team.
  • Once again, it also builds the confidence and thus the discretionary effort of your team if they know you are properly engaging with research to inform departmental improvements.
  • Twitter and networks such as Teaching Leaders, #womened and the teachmeet movement are great ways to stay connected.

Managing up

  • The report also indirectly highlights something Sir Michael Wilshaw has highlighted recently at the ASCL conference. The senior and middle leadership teams of the best schools are connected. We regularly see that middle leaders are much more effective when they are well managed and manage up well.
  • This isn’t about surreptitiously getting your line-manager to do what you want them to without them even knowing, it’s about middle leaders taking their share of the responsibility for making sure both parties understand the pressures and needs of one another. Senior leaders need to know what they can do to support your work.
  • Middle leaders look to senior leaders to ensure the consistent follow-through on whole school behaviour policies. This can make a real difference to the ability of pastoral and curriculum middle leaders to build a strong climate for learning within their teams.

Middle leaders can then use this relationship to spread your own good practice beyond your own team.”

Names of interviewees are pseudonyms. You can download the full report here.

Teaching Leaders logoTeaching Leaders’ mission is to address educational disadvantage by growing a movement of outstanding middle leaders in schools in challenging contexts. We design and deliver leadership development programmes for those leaders on the front line in the most challenging schools: middle leaders. Our high-potential and whole-school middle leader programmes transform the impact that leaders can make on pupil outcomes, retain them in their schools and build a talent pipeline for the future.

In November 2016, Teaching Leaders will join forces with The Future Leaders Trust. Together we will provide outstanding professional development to leaders at all levels in schools in challenging circumstances.