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Empower Your School’s Middle Leaders

August 21, 2017, 9:14 GMT+1
Read in about 8 minutes
  • The term ‘middle leadership’ encompasses more now than ever before
  • But if those holding such roles are to perform well, we need clarity as to what it means…
Empower Your School’s Middle Leaders

Over the past year or so, an increasing proportion of my work in schools and talks at conferences have focused on middle leadership. It would be safe to assume that this trend is reflective of the increased importance being placed on this particular ‘tier’, of late.

So important has the role become, the National Association of Head Teachers’ general secretary, Russell Hobby, was quoted last year as saying that “Middle leaders have more day-to-day impact on standards than headteachers,” given that they are, quite simply, “Closer to the action.”

He wasn’t alone in his thinking. Ofsted has taken a similar stance on the issue, noting that “The role of the middle manager is crucial to the steady and sustained improvement of schools.” Ofsted believes that headteachers and senior managers provide the ‘vision’, whereas middle managers affect those long-term changes that help to “Raise standards and improve the quality of education.”

But with the term ‘middle leadership’ becoming ever more wide-ranging – in many settings it still refers to subject and/ or phase leaders – how can the education sector ensure that it receives the consideration and resources necessary to guarantee that those operating in the role can perform to the best of their abilities?


I have previously visited settings where core subject leaders and phase leaders form part of the SLT, albeit because people sometimes have additional leadership roles. In other settings foundation subject leaders aren’t considered middle leaders at all. Instead, middle leaders will be the ‘core subject’ leaders (typically English and maths, but not science – often the forgotten core subject), and perhaps the EYFS leader as well.

The introduction several years ago of the National Professional Qualification for Middle Leadership by the National College for Teaching and Leadership was certainly a step in the right direction, designed as it was to develop the skills, knowledge and confidence needed to lead a high-performing team in a school and improve classroom practice. Anything that helps to instil confidence and drive performance should be applauded – yet in reality, it’s all a bit messy.

Before a conference, I always check the delegate registration list to see who the audience are and decipher their roles within schools. When it comes to middle leadership conferences, I’ve welcomed RQTs who’ll be shadowing their music coordinator over the next term, through to deputy headteachers who are also English and curriculum leads for both KS1 and KS2. The ‘middle’ of school leadership is evidently very broad indeed.

This is something that school leaders may want to think about. Exactly how is middle leadership defined in your setting, and what difference do your middle leaders make to pupil outcomes? Are they actually leading anything? When working with any school leader, I’ll often ask them to consider the impact that they have on the children – for example, by prompting them to reflect on the question, ‘Why is that child better at maths since you took over as maths leader?’

In schools where the leadership is effective and middle leaders are clear about their roles, they can give specific examples in response to these types of questions. They know what’s working well, what they need to improve, and how they plan to do so.

On the other hand, it’s equally common to come across situations in which so-called ‘middle leaders’ are in no position to answer such questions – which, unsurprisingly, tends to have an overwhelmingly negative impact on performance. The most effective middle leadership occurs under the most effective senior leaders.


It’s also important to touch upon the quality of support and training provided to middle leaders by senior leaders in settings across the country. It’s worth calling to mind at this point a quote from leadership guru Jo Owen – “Too much work on leadership focuses on what happens at the top of an organisation. This is a significant issue. Rules which work at the top of an organisation are not relevant to someone setting out on the leadership journey… Managing transition from one level of leadership to another is always a challenge.”

Senior leaders are responsible for identifying the potential in class teachers and moving them into middle leadership roles, yet the skills required are often very different. The people skills needed to teach a class of 7-year-olds are hardly comparable to those demanded of someone hoping to change the practice of a 57-year-old colleague! Similarly, the maths knowledge needed to teach reasoning to Y6 will be quite different from that required to analyse RAISE data or LA data sets.

A research study by Jo Owen previously compared the skills of teachers with those of city traders and civil servants in a range of areas, awarding scores out of 10 to each. Teachers scored comparatively well for people skills (9) and organisational skills (8), but typically fell short in analytical skills (6), action focus (6), initiative (6) and appetite for risk (4). (The city traders scored just 2 for people skills, while the civil servants scored a lowly 1 for risk appetite).

As soon as we move colleagues into a middle leadership role, that latter set of skills are demanded of them. We must ensure that they’re well-versed in analytical skills to be able to sort through data. They’ll need to focus on actions to help lead improvements and possess sufficient initiative to get on with leading without constant recourse to SLT.

And that’s before we even touch upon the need for a well-balanced risk appetite to ensure they’re empowered to try new ideas and make changes based on evaluated outcomes.


In schools where middle leadership is effective and actually improving outcomes for children, senior leaders will have previously put in place policies, provision and practice which supports their middle leaders in developing the key skills they’ll need to progress from their class teacher role.

Middle leadership will be clearly defined within the setting and occupy a clear place within the school’s leadership structure. The focus of the sector over the coming months, even years, must now be on defining the role itself and fine-tuning the responsibilities that go with it. Adopting a consistent approach to supporting and training middle leaders will go some way to resolving many of the problems described above.

As Mike Cladingbowl, former Ofsted National Director, once put it, “Middle leaders are enthusiasts for their subject, good managers and administrators – but to be truly effective, they embrace the more challenging characteristics of leadership, which are to do with vision, strategy and a drive towards improvement.”

Tim Nelson is a consultant for Focus Education, having previously worked as a headteacher, a local leader of education and an Ofsted inspector; for more information, visit