I believe that excellent leadership at all levels of the school is critical to closing the achievement between disadvantaged pupils and their peers, but it is particularly true at middle leadership level.
It matters much more who teaches you than which school you go to; 75% of the gap comes from variation in pupil performance within the same school. To close the gap, we need to reduce the variation within the school and the way we do that is through consistently excellent teaching and learning in every department of the school. It is our middle leaders, the engine room of the school, who deliver that. You cannot have a great school without great middle leadership.
In 2016, we commissioned LKMco to write a report Firing on all cylinders: What makes an effective middle leader? because we wanted to get inside the ‘black box’ of middle leadership: to understand what the best middle leaders do to deliver maximum impact for pupils.
By using the results of this report we can ensure middle leaders focus their time on the aspects of their role that deliver greatest impact and that our programmes disproportionately develop these skills. We were inspired by Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion which has identified the key skills that teachers can practise and master. I believe this report starts the same conversation about middle leadership.
The report analysed GCSE, performance and survey data to identify the highest performing middle leaders on the Teaching Leaders programme, and then conducted qualitative interviews with middle leaders to identify the key behaviours and characteristics middle leaders needed to be truly effective in their role. We found three key priorities:
1. Strong teamwork and interpersonal skills.
2. Effective organisation, planning and resource management ability.
3. Being professionally informed.
LKMco’s report also investigated the enabling factors and barriers which contribute to or hinder a middle leader’s success, and again some dominant themes emerged:
A unified team
The report found that departmental effectiveness crucially depends on the cohesiveness of the team, in part because middle leaders find their affirmation as leaders more often from team members rather than from their formal title or position, or from senior management.
Time, and the lack of it
Not having the time was cited by middle leaders as the single biggest constraint on their effectiveness, due to the number and diversity of tasks they are expected to handle, in addition to policy pressures to perform.
Support from above
A vital function of senior leaders is enabling middle leaders to be the best they can be. The report found that this can be achieved by creating collaborative, non-hierarchical ways of working and by providing professional development opportunities in the form of networking, mentoring and coaching.
The report gets to the heart of what differentiates good from great middle leadership, and what middle leaders need to prioritise to perform at their best.
This year, Ambition School Leadership is delighted to be supporting ASCL’s Leading the Future event at the 2017 ASCL Annual Conference. It is an exclusive event for middle leaders alongside ASCL’s Annual Conference and aimed at growing the next generation of talent. Please do consider bringing along some of your middle leaders to this event – we know from our middle leaders how inspiring it will be to attend the conference with you.
James will be leading the Stepping Up to Senior Leadership breakout session at ASCL Annual Conference 2017 on Saturday 11 March.
James Toop is CEO of Ambition School Leadership, a charity working with leaders at all levels, from aspiring middle leaders to executive headteachers. It provides world-class leadership development to help leaders and schools transform the lives of the children who need it most, and Teaching Leaders, its programme for high-potential middle leaders, is open for applications until 6 March 2017.