Middle Leaders provide secret to school performance

Group of serious managers listening to report of their co-worker in office

The work of middle leaders in schools has become increasingly important to school performance in recent decades, with education sector experts and researchers alike highlighting the benefits of an effective middle leadership team.

Whilst strong overall performance management remains fundamental to staff improvement and motivation – with one study finding that management quality accounts for 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores at different organisations – effective middle leadership is essential to ensuring that even the best performance strategies do not fall apart in practice.

 Heads of department, curriculum leaders and heads of faculty play a key role in implementing school performance strategy and improving pupil outcomes, bridging the gap between senior leadership strategies and teachers’ every day work.

 As senior leaders set out the progress vision for schools, middle leaders implement these guidelines on a daily basis, working with both senior leaders and teachers to improve whole-school communication, motivate staff and ensure that performance objectives are being worked towards.

 In their role as a liaison between senior management and classroom teachers, heads of department and other middle leaders are ideally positioned to provide on-the-ground oversight and create drive to make sure that school policy both works in practice and is implemented effectively say to day.

 In addition to this mediating, middle leaders balance their roles in driving grass-roots progress and representing staff to senior management with managing their team, communicating with parents, answering to senior management and teaching themselves.

 In order to achieve and sustain strong school-wide performance, it is therefore essential that schools work to develop strong middle leadership capacity.

 Former Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw underlines that middle leaders are “the engine of any school” and “in many ways … the most important leadership group in the school.” 

 Teaching Leaders charity CEO James Toop similarly acknowledges the importance of investing in strong middle leaders, stating : “No school can be a great school without getting middle leadership right.”

 By taking steps to improve the quality of their middle leadership, schools can reap significant benefits for their performance: promoting consistency in staff performance, improving relations between management and teachers and boosting employee engagement and job satisfaction.

Building teams and implementing strategy

  1.  Foster individual relationships

 One key element of successful and effective middle leadership is an ability to build cohesion within a given staff team or faculty.

 Bolstering team cohesion allows middle leaders to boost staff engagement, performance and job satisfaction at the same time – improving departmental relations whilst also honing focus on team objectives.

 Heads of department should aim to support, motivate and steer staff to achieve performance objectives across a personal, departmental and school-wide scale in order to promote good pupil outcomes.

 To this end, it is important for middle leaders to invest time into building a relationship with all the members of their department on an individual basis. 

 Leaders should aim to encourage regular, one-on-one discussions with their team members and engage staff as much as possible in any departmental decisions, inviting feedback and providing support for individual concerns.

  1. Develop team working

 To foster strong communications and team work across their department, middle leaders should also aim to create time for group work sessions.

 Team work opportunities offer a way to increase departmental face-time whilst also efficiently taking care of administrative tasks: data entry, marking and reporting activities can all be done in teams to improve communication, save time and reinforce a sense of departmental cohesion.

 Alongside building strong communication within their team, middle leaders must work to focus their staff on achieving wider school objectives, linking departmental work and aims into the framework of broader, whole-school vision and strategy.

  1. Creating the department strategic plan

 Creating a departmental master plan will help leaders to link specific, department work with the broader school vision statement, boosting performance progress and ensuring that broader performance aims of school and team are forefront  in the day-to-day working of all team members. 

Middle leaders should aim to engage their department as much as possible in creating and reviewing the team statement so as to motivate staff – aligning senior management policy aims with departmental staff’s own needs and objectives. 

In addition, departmental goals and vision statements should be reviewed and updated regularly in keeping with both changes to wider school policy and also with feedback of individual staff within department.

By incorporating broader school vision into more concrete, departmental aims, middle leaders can effectively enforce the implementation of school policy, making it easier to achieve improvement whilst also cementing departmental unity and cohesion.

Maintaining and monitoring both standards and workload 

 Another key element of middle leadership is the maintenance and monitoring of high administrative standards. 

 In line with their accountability for departmental performance, middle leaders should aim to have some meaningful oversight over whether members of their department are adequately meeting standards for every day non-classroom teaching tasks such as planning, assessment, marking, data-entry, reports and parental contact.  This oversight should include assessing whether colleagues are spending too much time on a particular aspect of their non-teaching tasks and require support or guidance on how to complete those tasks more efficiently or reduce the time spent on them altogether.  This is especially true for more junior members of staff who are relatively new to the profession.

 This oversight both allows the school to run more smoothly and makes it easier to identify and resolve any operational issues, with each department leader keeping a closer eye on their team of staff.

 Whilst scrutinising team performance may risk creating a more tense, adversarial relationship between leaders and staff, it is important for middle leaders to identify and address underperformance wherever possible, both to resolve issues quickly and to maintain a culture of high expectations, thereby supporting school performance objectives and pupil outcomes.

 Middle leaders can get the most out of quality assurance checks and ensure that their staff are achieving consistently high standards by providing teachers with an overview of the year’s quality assurance processes ahead of time, giving details for example of any marking and feedback audits, lesson observations or moderation and data checks.

 To minimise the sense of inter-departmental scrutiny attached to these checks, the purpose and aims of assurance processes should be as transparent as possible, with space given for any feedback or concerns to be addressed.

 In order to get the most out of quality assurance exercises, middle leaders are advised to share their findings and feedback with the team.

 Constructive feedback should be as positive and productive as possible: examples of any good practice observed should be given, so as to increase the sense of positivity around the checks and boost staff morale. 

 Criticism and negative feedback meanwhile should be framed as far as possible with a focus on finding collective solutions going forward.

Between representing their department, enforcing senior management policies and managing their own teaching performance, middle leaders in schools have a difficult balancing act to strike. If they are able to foster strong team ties, connect school aims to specific departmental goals and hold their team to account however, they can have a significant impact in shaping school performance and will likely prove to be school management’s most important asset. 

 Improving Performance Management

 Educate specialises in helping making performance management easier, faster and more effective with the implementation of its Standards Tracker software.

 Educate supports teachers, school leaders, governors and education managers to develop and implement best practice staff performance management systems that deliver improved learning.

 To learn more on how Educate can help your school improve its performance management practices please email Carol French on carolfrench@educate.co.uk  or call 020 3411 1080.


Ofsted to offer secondment roles for school middle leaders


School leaders will be given the opportunity to spend a year in secondment working for Ofsted as part of a new programme announced by the inspectorate this month.

Speaking in Birmingham, Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman unveiled the plans to school and college leaders at the Association of School and College Leaders’ annual union conference.

 The new programme highlights the inspectorate’s current focus on “the importance of collaboration and discussion on inspection.”

 From September 2019, Ofsted has proposed that inspectors do their preparation for a visit at the school the afternoon before the official inspection starts, encouraging the lead inspector and school leaders to work together and strategise collaboratively for the benefit of the school.

 Speaking to union members, Spielman maintained that consolidating “the shared experiences of inspectors and school leaders” via secondments would benefit both groups and in turn the education system, stating:

 “Ofsted is part of the education system, not separate from it.”

 The twelve month programme is aimed at middle leader subject leads and heads of department, who will “get access to [Ofsted] training and development, and, through inspection, gain insight into what all different types of schools are doing.”

 After 12 months, the watchdog says that school leaders should return to their schools “and hopefully will have gained hugely from the experience, benefiting the school in turn.”

 From Ofsted’s perspective, the scheme will allow the inspectorate to “gain expertise from middle leaders” and more closely understand the “up-to-date experiences of running a school.”

 It is also positioned as a vehicle to boost Oftsed’s recruitment of contracted inspectors, after the National Audit Office warned the regulator that it needed to devise a strategy to stem its decrease in staff and ensure that enough trained inspectors remain to carry out school assessments.

 The programme is set to start early next year with a pilot scheme of current, trained inspectors already serving as school leaders, with plans for places to then be “open to any school leader who has had some whole school responsibility.”

The benefit of inspection training for school leaders

The proposal has been met with understandable reservations by education professionals, with many concerned for the implications on school performance of removing key leaders from work for twelve months at a time. 

 In voicing support for the programme, ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton nonetheless acknowledged the “logistical hurdles” for schools seeking to “cover the gaps in staffing which would result from secondments, particularly given that there are currently very significant teacher shortages.”

 Alongside and in spite of its potential drawbacks however, the new scheme also brings to light the valuable benefits that a closer understanding of Ofsted amongst school leaders can bring to both performance and pupil outcomes.  

 On a broad scale, Barton says the secondments could indirectly benefit all schools by “enabl[ing] Ofsted to benefit from the insight and expertise of people who are in the education engine room, planning, delivering and supporting the learning of young people.”

 In terms of benefits for school leadership and performance, the ASCL head says that inspectorate secondments “would also provide valuable career development for secondees, which could help to improve retention rates in the longer term.”

 Ofsted envisions that the secondments will form “part of the development journey of talented school leaders who are on a trajectory to headship or beyond.”

 Leaders who have qualified and served as inspectors report becoming better leaders as a result of their training and experience, learning how to objectively assess school performance and identify problems, as well as how to recognise the good practice and progress that may lie behind potentially misleading performance data. 

 A wide range of experience evaluating the performance of other schools can provide school staff with a depth of understanding regarding the specific challenges and risk factors facing schools in specific conditions, as well as the most effective ways to overcome them.

 Additionally, as a result of their “shared experiences” with inspectors, these school leaders are likely to be more confident and proficient both in conducting self evaluations and in working with external inspectors during their own inspections to improve outcomes for their school.

 By supporting inspection training, schools can therefore provide ambitious leaders with attractive continuous professional development opportunities which benefit the school significantly: boosting long term retention rates and developing an array of management skills key to school performance.

 Such training equips employees with the confidence and expertise to develop their own practice and become skilled policy-makers, preparing them to take on new roles and creating a pipeline of strong, experienced candidates for future top leadership positions. 

 Working with school inspectors to get the most out of visits

Whether staff partake in inspection training or secondments or not, to get the most out of the inspection process, schools should try to be as collaborative with their inspectors as possible.

 To counter and overcome the anxiety, stress and pressure often associated with inspections, leadership teams to aim to approach visits as a collaborative endeavour in which inspectors are working with schools to help them hone their performance strategy and identify the best path to progress for them.

As wide a range of the school community as possible should be invited to share their experiences with the inspectors, whilst school leaders should strive to communicate clearly and directly with inspectors before, during and after the inspection. 

 In order to work effectively alongside inspectors throughout the process, leaders should use the initial phone call and email exchanges with their inspector ahead of the visit to begin an open dialogue and establish a common ground of understanding going in to the visit.

 As schools which are well-briefed on their own goals will be better placed to clearly discuss them with external regulators, senior management teams should ensure that they instil a common internal understanding of the school’s progress and weaknesses through self evaluations. 

 At the moment, with the new curriculum-focused inspection criteria coming into force this September, school leaders would be wise to take time to establish their “curriculum intent” — setting clear, informed and achievable goals.

 To this end, school management teams should dedicate time to reading into their curriculum and meeting to discuss potential changes or suggestions, as well as any evidence which supports of could add to their current strategy.

 Setting researched and considered ‘intentions’ will help set the foundations for a constructive, collaborative inspection as well as providing a blueprint for primary school performance management strategy beyond external inspections.

Improving Performance Management

Educate specialises in helping making performance management easier, faster and more effective.

 Educate supports teachers, school leaders, governors and education managers to develop and implement best practice staff performance management systems that deliver improved learning.

 To learn more on how Educate can help your school improve its performance management practices please email Carol French on carolfrench@educate.co.uk  or call 020 3411 1080.