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Why middle leaders matter, more than ever

And how the views of middle leaders across the network should lead to new programmes, new forms of delivery and new insights into how our best middle leaders work. Introduced by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, University of Bath

In a fast-changing educational world, we often lose sight of who or what matters most of all. The daily demands placed on schools and the expectations on teachers are relentless. It is so easy, maybe too easy, to get distracted by the latest policy fad or fashion and to lose sight of the central purpose of education, which is to empower and educate young people.

While most of the leadership research focuses on headteachers, the simple truth is that even our best school leaders have an indirect effect on the classroom, as their leadership is mediated through others. By contrast, teachers have a direct effect on the classroom; and middle leaders are closest to that action. The evidence shows clearly that middle leaders play a crucial role in improving learning and teaching. Not only are they seen as role models; they are the gatekeepers to change and innovation in the areas that they lead.

A driver in school improvement

Middle leaders are the ‘connectors’ between teachers and senior leaders and as such are constantly mediating between their own departmental culture and ethos and the implementation of whole school policies.  The best middle leaders create opportunities for collective working, thinking and innovation, and are more likely to see results. Conversely, middle leaders who view their work as routinely managerial or administrative may be efficient but are unlikely to inspire their colleagues to push the boundaries of their professional practice.

In short, middle leaders are a powerful driver in school improvement. Their work directly influences how teachers respond to and engage with their daily work. Probably, many middle leaders do not see themselves this way and play down the centrality of their contribution to school transformation and change. Yet, in other sectors, like business, middle leaders are given the status, the resource, and the latitude to innovate, as the return on this investment is clear.

The evidence shows that the best school leaders create the conditions for teachers to work in the optimum and most effective ways. They ensure that professionals, at all levels in the school, have the very best chance of being inspirational, effective, and transformational. They create the conditions so that teachers have the time, resource, and opportunity to be the very best that they can be. Recognising the centrality and importance of the middle leaders in their school, they position them so that they can make a significant and lasting difference.

At a recent social event, a headteacher asked whether there was anything new or different to say about middle leaders. As the educational landscape has shifted so considerably in the past decade, this was a surprising question. Amid so much transformation and upheaval, it’s hardly likely that middle leaders will have remained largely the same. Schools as organisations have changed; the responsibilities placed on all school leaders have changed; the policy context has changed; and, most importantly, students have changed.

In an editorial of School Leadership and Management, in June, we argued that there is a need for a renewed focus on middle leaders and for research that gets to the heart of their leadership practice (Harris and Jones, 2017). Put simply, if middle leaders make such a difference, it is important also to know how best to support and develop them.

In a recent SSAT workshop at the University of Bath, we started this discussion with a group of middle leaders.

The workshop’s key objectives were:

  • To consider the contemporary roles of middle level leaders in schools and the existing knowledge base.
  • To outline the contemporary issues and challenges that are part of the particular leadership role.
  • To consider middle leaders’ developmental needs and to assess how far existing training and staff development meets these needs.
  • To map out a collaborative development and research agenda focusing on middle level leadership for the SSAT.

A variety of roles

The workshop emphasised the different roles that middle leaders play in schools – whether they are curriculum leaders, pastoral leaders or have other areas of responsibility they all play a crucial part in directly influencing the practice of other teachers. Only by working together can they secure the best possible outcomes for students and make a difference to children’s lives.

More specific priorities for middle leadership discussed at the workshop included:

  • whether they felt they had a strategic role/autonomy, accountability
  • where the expectations and pressures come from
  • the way in which they work with their senior leadership line managers
  • whether preparation for middle leadership roles is adequate
  • what levels of support/coaching they receive.

We firmly believe that, considering the challenges, pressures and expectations currently placed on schools, middle leaders matter more than ever. So these discussions, and more widely the experience of current middle and senior leaders in schools, will form the basis of ongoing work, led by the SSAT and the University of Bath, to establish new insights into how our best middle leaders work within, between and across schools.

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