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Middle leadership can unlock your school’s success

 Blog posts are written by guest writers from the world of education. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of NAHT.

 Good schools have effective leadership at the top. A headteacher and senior leadership team who set the vision, expectations and direction for the school, so that every child has the opportunity to achieve.

But great schools devolve leadership further. Middle leaders are the engine room of the school and excellent middle leadership delivers change in the classroom, enables consistently great teaching across the school, and ensures that progress and development gaps are closed.

OECD data shows that 75% of the achievement gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers comes from variation in pupil performance within the same school. What closes the gap is a relentless focus on every child, delivered through excellent teaching and learning, in every subject, across every phase and department of the school. Headteachers cannot manage this level of detail, and teachers cannot manage the scope. It is middle leaders who must deliver this.

The growing importance of middle leadership

There has never been a better time to be a middle leader. Middle leaders have increasing accountability and autonomy meaning they can now clearly see how their leadership directly impacts pupil progress. There are also new opportunities in the school-led system to increase their impact through collaboration within and across schools.

But there has never been a more challenging time to be a middle leader. Added to the challenge of stepping up to your first leadership role, today’s rapidly changing policy landscape requires new skills to grapple with new curriculum specifications and assessing without levels.

So what do the best middle leaders do to deliver maximum impact for pupils, and how can you develop these skills and competencies in your middle leadership team?

What makes an effective middle leader?

In 2015, we undertook research with NAHT looking at what skills middle leaders would need by 2020. Four areas stood out: the need to lead teaching and be experts in their area, spend more time line managing and developing staff, lead collaboratively across a wider context, and manage up effectively. 

Our 2016 report Firing on all cylinders: What makes an effective middle leader? examined the enabling factors and barriers to a middle leader’s success. In the research the best middle leaders did three things. They:

  • built strong teams characterised by excellent relationships with teachers, and knowing and developing the teachers within their teams;
  • planned well, ensuring the conditions were right for their teachers and teaching assistants to deliver by focusing on areas such as resource management;
  • and focused on delivering, ensuring that systems and processes were right to monitor pupil performance.

The best middle leaders I have seen have an unwavering passion for teaching and ensuring the very best for their pupils. This creates a culture of positivity, confidence and risk-taking in a safe environment which gets the best out of their teachers and pupils.

Unlocking potential

So how can you develop the sophisticated mix of skills and leadership qualities your middle leaders need?

At Ambition School Leadership, we believe you can achieve long-term impact for your school and pupils by identifying growth areas in your middle leadership team. That’s why we have developed an online Leadership Diagnostic that evaluates your team's strengths, development areas and potential next steps.

The tool is based on the competency framework we use on our Teaching Leaders programme. These leadership competencies are the behaviours, habits and ways of thinking that contribute to superior performance. By identifying areas for growth, you can be more targeted in developing your team and build the competencies your school really needs.

The effect on retention

We have seen that schools that invest in our Teaching Leaders programme retain 80% of their middle leaders. And effective middle leaders increase teacher retention. Evidence on staff motivation and discretionary effort consistently shows that it is the quality of the line manager that has the greatest effect. High performing middle leaders develop higher quality teachers and then retain them in the school. They also motivate and support other middle leaders across the school through their collaboration.

And when your staff are supported to achieve their potential, they will be in the best possible position to ensure that every child can achieve too.

Identify key areas for growth in your middle leadership team by completing our quick online Leadership Diagnostic.

James Toop is CEO of Ambition School Leadership, a charity working with leaders at all levels, from aspiring middle leaders to multi-academy trust chief executives. It provides technical training and leadership development to help leaders and schools transform the lives of the children who need it most. Teaching Leaders, its programme for high-potential middle leaders, is open for nominations until 7 July 2017.