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What targeted professional development do middle leaders need?

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Paul Irvine spent much of his teaching career as a middle leader and became so interested in the issues they face that he completed a doctorate about their needs.

Now a consultant and coach, he’s still fascinated by what can be done to support middle leaders, particularly during their early years.

“My contention that the transition from classroom teacher to middle leader is key because it is at this stage that leadership behaviours are perhaps first learned and subsequently embedded. In the same way that we teach people to drive at the beginning of their driving career rather than leaving them to it for 10 years and then trying to change their deeply-engrained habits, so we should put the emphasis on middle leaders’ leadership professional development (LPD) so that they develop good practice from the start,” he says.

Irvine, who will chair a session around his current research at the BELMAS leadership research conference in July, says research links the challenges faced by middle leaders and the effective strategies they eventually develop. He’s developing a diagnostic tool to help new leaders identify and seek help for problem areas, suggesting targeted training would be more helpful and more cost-effective than off-the-shelf programmes.

What does the research say about the importance of new middle leaders?

Paul says studies show the quality of leadership in a school is directly related to its educational outcomes, there is emerging evidence that specific preparation is required for leadership roles and little work has been done on middle leaders. The increasing complexity and diversity of schools make off-the-shelf LPD something of a hit-and-miss process, he says.

What challenges do new middle leaders face?

Paul’s doctoral research identified several issues for new middle leaders:

  • Job description – roles were often unclear
  • Expectations – middle leaders tend to focus on the interests of their students and often feel conflicted if their school focuses more on results
  • Team members – the middle leader’s followers often see things differently to each other and the organisation because of their personality/career stage
  • Being ‘piggy in the middle’ – a problem for middle leaders striving to reconcile differing drivers of the organisation and their followers
  • Culture – a new middle leader’s desire to make changes to make a difference may conflict with their school’s informal conventions
  • Experience – a lack of leadership experience can be a particular challenge
  • Lack of time.


What helps more experienced middle leaders?

After a couple of years, middle leaders develop helpful capabilities, which include the following:

  • Vision – successful middle leaders know where they are going, why and can communicate this
  • Lead practitioner – it’s important to model continued personal learning and remain current with developments in subject area, pedagogy and assessment
  • Knowing themselves – a mentor or coach can help
  • Knowing their team. 


How can new middle leaders get tailored training?

Research into LPD across the globe shows it can include a wide range of techniques that include self-reflection, e-learning, mentoring, coaching, in school projects, problem-based activities and networking, which range inside and outside the school.

Paul suggests understanding the challenges for a typical new middle leader, plus the techniques used by their more experienced colleagues, combined with LPD strategies, can be used to create a diagnostic framework for tailored training.

For targeted LPD to be developed, the starting point must be the needs of the individual middle leader, and for this, Paul is developing a questionnaire that, through a series of questions based on each of the issues identified above, will indicate where a middle leader needs the greatest support. For instance, the questions that could be asked about the issue of vision could be as follows:

  • I have a clear understanding of what I am trying to achieve within my role
  • My aim/vision is written down
  • The aim/vision for my department can be described in one sentence
  • My team are all aware of my aim/vision
  • I have discussed these aims with my manager over the past 12 months. 


Paul is looking at the potential for applying metrics to such questions, which would provide a graphic identifying strengths and weaknesses and highlight specific issues – for instance, around the perception of their job description and the school’s expectations. This would make it possible to create a targeted LPD programme, which might be as simple as a senior leadership team member discussing the parameters of the role and the school’s expectations. This would be not only targeted but also cost-effective, says Irvine.

He concludes by saying the evaluation of LPD is known to be challenging, but this approach might make it easier to do. “If the challenges facing individual middle leaders are identified and measures put in place specifically to address those challenges, the evaluation of the level of success of those measures becomes easier to isolate.”

'Middle leadership – using what we know to build a diagnostic framework for preparation and development for the role' is being presented by Paul Irvine at the BELMAS conference during the weekend of 7 July 2018.

BELMAS is an educational leadership research association open to school and college leaders at all levels as well as academics, and it encourages members to generate and share ideas, and good practice. BELMAS is an independent voice supporting quality education from effective leadership and management. Find out more at

Susan Young


Susan Young is a journalist who has been specialising in education for more than 20 years. She was news editor and an assistant editor on the TES, where she created and edited a section for school leaders, and has also worked for the Observer and the Express.

As a freelancer, Susan writes for and works with a range of educational organisations, including the British Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society (BELMAS) and English UK.

She's interested in most things in education, from politics to practicality, but particularly loves hearing from professionals about the initiatives they're putting in place in their schools to make things better. Do get in touch.

First published 03 July 2018