December 2011


  • Running on empty?
    What’s the best, most effective way to spend the pupil premium? A report for charity the Sutton Trust has produced some surprising findings. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
  • facefacts
    Social networking sites are routinely banned in many classrooms but one college has found they can open up new channels for engagement and be a powerful aid to learning. Millie Watts explains. More
  • Handle with care
    Department heads and other middle tier staff are leaders as well as teachers but many staff in these positions say they struggle to adapt to a dual role. Andrea Berkeley explores ways to help them assume the mantle of leadership. More
  • Feeling lost for words?
    Mike Venables looks at the devices a nd tricks that make an effective and powerful communicator, drawing on the age-o ld traditions of rhetoric and acting. More
Bookmark and Share

Department heads and other middle tier staff are leaders as well as teachers but many staff in these positions say they struggle to adapt to a dual role. Andrea Berkeley explores ways to help them assume the mantle of leadership.


Middle leaders are the engines of schools and colleges. They direct frontline teaching and are ultimately responsible for results.

With the focus on closing the achievement gap and higher expectations of system-wide collaboration, school and college leaders are keen to empower the middle tier of leadership and build capacity for improvement.

But some middle leaders struggle with the cultural shift from being team coordinator, advocate or representative to fully accountable leader and manager. How to support and develop them is a concern frequently voiced by school and college leaders.

This is a question we address in the Teaching Leaders programme, which trains and develops high potential middle leaders in challenging schools and colleges.

Feedback from participants, alumni and senior leaders in the programme’s partner schools and colleges reveals a significant mismatch of perceptions. Overwhelmingly, school and college leaders say they give their middle leaders increased autonomy with intelligent accountability.

Yet some middle leaders themselves view it differently. They don’t quite believe in their own authority, report feelings of powerlessness and a sense that they are shouldering the burden of two-way accountability without the clout.

It is not surprising. Middle leaders are indeed the squeezed middle. Whether it be curriculum, examination, inspection or other policy or systemic changes, the pressure is on them to make it work in practice.

The opportunity to make things happen, make a difference, do things “my way” joyfully seized by first-time leaders is often short-lived.

Suddenly, they are managing upwards as well as downwards – and laterally, too, competing with others for limited resources and conflicting ideas. And if they have been promoted internally, relationships with peers will shift and different alliances will form or break.

As a teacher or lecturer they had one boss and were responsible for their students only. Now they have staff to manage and frequently more than one boss – the head or principal, their designated line manager and perhaps others leading on different initiatives and priorities.

Taking up middle leadership might even appear to undermine the very achievements that led to promotion – including teaching – which may then be experienced as a loss. How often do we hear middle leaders berating themselves for neglecting their own teaching?

More crucially they have to re-learn ways of operating and motivating themselves, suppressing their drive for personal achievement in the service of others. Their success stands or falls on collective achievement and the emergent leader will need to develop a different set of skills and to gain job satisfaction from enabling others to succeed and grow.

These higher order leadership skills, which include motivating, influencing, managing performance, networking and tolerating ambiguity, are hard to acquire without experience. Fortunately, there are ways in which school and college leaders can help accelerate wisdom and experience among middle and emergent leaders.

In the belief that leadership development should at least partly be determined by those with a stake in the future, the examples that follow reflect some of the experiences and opportunities that first-time middle leaders tell us they value.

Prepare them on the job

An obvious way to support middle leaders is through customised preparation, induction and continuous professional development.
Identify high potentials early – target them with training and support.

  • Offer both formal induction for all new middle leaders, even mid-year, and informal learning from work-shadowing of senior leaders.
  • Help them hone the subtle skills of influence and motivation by encouraging a coaching approach to staff development through role-modelling, formal work shadowing and apprenticeships.
  • If resources allow, provide training in coaching and mentoring skills for all new and emergent middle leaders.
  • Consider buddying, placements or internships, internally or in partner schools/colleges.
  • Make sure that unsuccessful applicants for internal promotion are given detailed feedback on their strengths and weaknesses so that they are not disheartened and know how to use the debrief to develop themselves.

Give them time

Some people develop leadership skills by osmosis but for many, dedicated thinking and learning time is necessary to help them to understand what areas they need to improve and why.

  • Clarify middle leader job descriptions and update regularly. Is there enough emphasis on directing teaching and learning or sufficient time for developing and monitoring others?
  • Allocate non-contact time for specific activities such as coaching, lesson observations and learning walks.
  • Rethink and restructure middle leader meetings. Set time for information and consultation but also make space for learning and development activities.
  • Build formal meeting times into the school day.

Look and feel the part

Raising the profile and status of middle leaders in the eyes of the school community can help them feel more comfortable in their leadership role.

  • Give the middle leader a whole school profile and a voice on a specific issue, such as making presentations to governors, running staff training, or highlighting good practice at staff meetings.
  • Introduce secondments to the senior leadership team with short-term projects or assignments focused on a real institutional need.

Help them manage time and communication
Swamped with missives from above, below and beyond, middle leaders often struggle in silence; they have not yet developed the basic communication skills that are second nature to top leaders.

  • Consider training on running meetings, facilitating discussion and writing clearly and unequivocally (ironically, ever more important in the age of email and texting).
  • Ensure that performance data reaches middle leaders in a manageable form and that they know how to use it as a basis for action.
  • Give formal training in project management, conflict management and crisis management.

Support them in having difficult conversations

Nowadays, middle leaders understand accountability and speak with admiration of senior leaders who are not afraid to tackle under-performance but they often struggle with difficult conversations themselves.

  • Provide explicit training with real scenarios in training sessions. Observing each other saying the difficult words out loud can be a real help.
  • Introduce problem-solving discussion groups. With an experienced senior facilitator these can empower middle leaders to talk openly and share experiences in a safe environment through the method of presenting and reflecting on case studies. It helps them to realise they are not alone.

Keep them creative and collaborative

Team building away days can help to change the culture of middle leaders, enabling them to become a self-supporting group, helping each other to build capacity in their areas to drive up standards. It can also be a fun but effective means of understanding team dynamics and learning to be a better leader.

  • Organise joint away days with middle and senior leaders, to help middle leaders see themselves as part of the leadership team of the whole institution.
  • Offer short action research projects and school-based MAs.
  • Arrange focused visits to other schools or colleges and joint lesson observations with other institutions.
  • Assign them to collect new ideas – from academic associations, societies and museums.
  • Let them take risks; create a no blame culture.

Take a personal interest

A private chat with senior leaders – or a planned visit to their area – means much more than one might imagine.

  • Make sure senior leaders have their ear to the ground, keeping tabs on middle leaders’ concerns and thinking about their workload.
  • Praise them and value them; take an interest in both career and personal matters and celebrate their successes openly.

Finally, let them be reminded why they came into teaching in the first place: passion for their subject. It may seem obvious, but make sure that at least some development opportunities for them include a subject specific focus to keep the passion alive.

  • Andrea Berkeley is a former headteacher and director of development for Teaching Leaders, a programme created jointly by ARK, the National College, Teach First and Future Leaders. It now has 300 participants and alumni in 148 schools. Go to
handle with care