The power of Middle Leaders

In the 22 March 2019 edition of tes, I was interested to read a piece by primary head Nicola Forster entitled ‘Vacating the middle ground’.  In the article, Nicola explained how she removed the middle leadership roles in her school, to positive effect.

Nicola explained the rationale behind her decision:

“I discovered that most Ofsted inspection reports that grade a school as ‘requires improvement’ will vilify middle leaders for being ineffective.  As a headteacher, this made me really question whether middle leadership was an effective leadership strategy for schools”,


“It is incredibly difficult for [Middle Leaders] to be able to see the bigger picture of the school, as they lack the necessary knowledge-through-monitoring insights.”

In my leadership consultancy life beyond headship, I work quite frequently with serving and aspiring Middle Leaders.  My view is that they can play a crucial role in schools’ and colleges’ success, but they require both support and challenge, their leadership skills must be developed and effectively deployed, and they need to be listened to and their expertise valued.  I can well believe that if Middle Leaders are ineffective, there may be a greater likelihood of a school falling short of what we would expect and hope for, but I do not believe the answer is to get rid of Middle Leaders.  On the contrary, I would suggest that the school needs to invest in them.  If Middle Leaders fail to see ‘the bigger picture’, heads and senior leaders should give consideration to how this can be achieved.  If perceptions are narrow, how best can they be expanded so that awareness and understanding grow?

So why do I believe Middle Leaders to be so important?

  • If Middle Leaders have specific expertise in, knowledge of and responsibility for a particular domain within the school – whether that is curricular, pastoral or connected with a specific area or phase such as SEND, or Early Years, or leading support staff – the school can benefit from making the most of that skill. If Middle Leaders focus on leading their domain well, working with and through colleagues to achieve the best they can in that area, then overall standards will lift.  If you are a Middle Leader, focus on becoming a beacon of excellence within your school.  Demonstrate what strong leadership within your domain can achieve.
  • Because Middle Leaders are working closely with a group of colleagues to set and fulfil high standards within a particular area, they have significant, direct impact on the experience of the students, within the classroom and beyond it. Compare this with the indirect influence exerted by the senior leadership within the school.  I remember saying to my senior team when I was a head that it seemed to me that the most important job we had was to appoint the right Middle Leaders to their key positions, and then to support, challenge and trust them to do the best job they could.  Middle Leaders work with and through the colleagues they are responsible for to reach all the pupils across the school.
  • Research coming out of the Corporate Leadership Council on Employee Engagement suggests that the greatest impact on ‘discretionary effort’ (the amount of effort employees are prepared to expend, over and above what they need to do to keep their job) comes from the attitude and approach of their immediate line manager. Within a school’s context, that is likely to be a Middle Leader.  So Middle Leaders have the capacity significantly to affect the morale of the colleagues they lead, which is another reason why heads and senior leaders need to give thought to what training and support Middle Leaders need in order to secure the highest standards of leadership.

How can schools get the best from their Middle Leaders?

  • Earlier in my teaching career, it seemed to me that Middle Leaders (usually called ‘Middle Managers’ – the language is revealing) had essentially a bureaucratic, administrative role. I had very little training in leading other adults when I became a Head of Department in the late 1980s.  I think these days we recognise that we cannot assume a good teacher who is promoted to a leadership role will automatically be successful as they move from getting the best from children to also getting the best from their colleagues.  Training, mentoring, reading, shadowing, networking can all be used to good effect as Middle Leaders build their leadership skills.
  • In Middle Leader meetings, ensure there is debate and a developmental leadership focus rather than this simply being ‘broadcast’ where information is given out. If colleagues are physically gathered together, make the most of this so that they can interact with, learn from and contribute to the learning of each other (and encourage Middle Leaders to do the same when they lead a meeting in their area).  Several Middle Leaders may be facing similar leadership issues.  Can the more experienced, or more assured, support those who are still building their skills?  Can your Middle Leaders work AS a team, rather than simply IN a team (Dylan Wiliam, quoting Robert Slavin).  This can also help them to understand the whole-school perspective.  By sharing knowledge and developing understanding of their fellow Middle Leaders’ areas, they can have a fuller appreciation of the wider landscape.
  • Encourage networking and the building of professional support networks beyond the school. Twitter, it seems to me, is especially useful to Middle Leaders who can connect with, share and learn from those leading similar domains in other places.  They can exchange views, resources, ideas and potential solutions to the challenges they face.  Visiting other schools to see how similar domains are led and organised can be a very helpful way of encouraging Middle Leaders to appreciate the Bigger Picture.

I am aware that my perspective on Middle Leaders is based on my experience of school leadership within the secondary or all-through phase, and I am not a primary or Further Education specialist.  I understand that Nicola Forster’s context as a primary head is different, and I am not being critical of the steps she took, which sound from the article to have worked for her school.  I fully accept that we all need to do what we believe to be right in our particular circumstances.  However, I am not ready to give up on Middle Leaders.  I believe that if we invest in them; build trust and mutual respect; focus on encouraging them to reflect on and continue to develop their leadership capacity, they can help heads and senior leaders to take the school where they wish it to go.

As Koh et al claimed in 2011: “Research has shown that Middle Leaders occupy key ‘link’ positions to influence school improvement and effectiveness.” (Interestingly their research focus WAS primary!)

Reference: Koh, H., Gurr, D., Drysdale, L., L. Ang (2011)  How school leaders perceive the leadership role of middle leaders in Singapore primary schools, Asia Pacific Education Review 12 (609-620)

Photo credit: John Berry

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