Raising attainment: the role of middle leaders
We need their skills, vision and direction in the engine rooms of our schools
With greater powers and funding being increasingly devolved directly to headteachers, so the role of middle leaders in helping their headteachers to raise attainment comes under greater scrutiny. Time was when middle leaders were exemplary teachers with additional responsibility for administrative functions, such as the management of their stage or departmental resources, but with a largely laissez faire approach to the management of their colleagues.
Not any more. These days, given the growing acceptance of the distributed nature of leadership in schools, middle leaders have arguably the most demanding, but potentially the most rewarding, of people-management roles when it comes to realising the vision of raising levels of attainment for all, while minimising the impact of poverty on pupil performance.
True, we need headteachers with a clear vision of a better future for our pupils and a coherent overall strategy for getting there. Yet, typically, and especially in secondary schools, it is not headteachers who deliver the curriculum. True, also, the single most important classroom variable in raising attainment and reducing the impact on learning of background factors is the quality of classroom teaching – as evidenced in the commitment of teachers to the wellbeing of their pupils, their relationships with them and their parents and last, but hardly least, their teaching skills. Yet the quality of individual teacher–pupil encounters in classrooms, though vital, is not sufficient. Even more critical is the consistency of the quality of such encounters, not merely in individual classrooms but across the school curriculum and throughout the schooling years.
That is why we need middle leaders in the engine rooms of our schools. They are Janus-headed figures, though hopefully not in the sense that they are twofaced! On the one hand, they are team players who are accountable to the headteacher for ensuring that school policies are implemented via exemplary classroom practice. On the other hand, they are team leaders who accept a measure of responsibility not just for the wellbeing of their own pupils but for identifying, developing and harnessing the abilities of professional colleagues and jointly planning with and through them, together with their other middle leader colleagues, a coherent whole-school approach to raising attainment for all pupils.
Middle leaders also monitor and evaluate pupil progress to ensure that, as far as possible, the quality of teaching in all classrooms within their areas of responsibility is as good as the quality of teaching in the best of those classrooms.
Many of Scotland's teachers have the potential to become more effective middle leaders, including those who initially doubt they have what it takes
Middle leaders need all of the pedagogical skills that we associate with good teachers. But they must also have the ability to articulate a vision and a direction of travel for their own area of responsibility that their colleagues will be willing to commit to. School leadership is about professionals co-operating with each other. Hence the need for the interpersonal skills that middle leaders require if they are to encourage colleagues to pull together as a team, especially those whose instinctive preference is to go their own way.
Thereafter, middle leaders need the wisdom to recognise effective teaching methods and the planning skills that will help them to roll out those methods in day-to-day team practice. Finally, they must be able to persuade team colleagues of the benefits of self-evaluation of their contribution to pupil learning and to persuade them to participate in the collaborative professional development practices that are among the best ways of improving teaching performance, so to raise levels of attainment even further.
Having spent 14 years organising professional development programmes that focus on the needs of aspiring and serving middle leaders in schools, my view is that many of Scotland’s teachers have the potential to become more effective middle leaders, including those who initially doubt if they have what it takes. But they do need easier access to leadership development opportunities and to mentoring advice, especially given the enhanced leadership roles that increasingly they must play if they are to help headteachers to raise levels of attainment.
It is for that reason that the Scottish College for Educational Leadership (www.scelscotland.org.uk) has made freely available to all aspiring and serving middle leaders a suite of self-directed professional development materials entitled Into Middle Leadership in Schools.
The materials comprise a one-stop shop for thought pieces, workshops on leadership scenarios, advice on how to plan and lead school-based improvement initiatives and a facilitators’ guide. They build competence in the key skills of middle leadership, as defined by Scotland’s Standard for Middle Leadership, while raising pupil attainment. And their recommended use reflects the model of learning that underpins all of SCEL’s endorsed programmes. As such, the materials complement and exemplify the support for aspiring middle leaders being provided by various local authorities and reflect the criteria for GTC Scotland Professional Recognition of leadership skills.
It remains for headteachers to encourage interested teachers to devote some of their professional learning time to middle leadership development. If, however, middle leaders are thereafter to make best use of their enhanced skills in a team approach to promoting that continuity, progression and coherence in learning that will improve attainment, they will need increased leadership time commensurate with the size of their remits.
About the Author
Dick Lynas is a former headteacher, a consultant in school leadership and has worked with SCEL in recent years. Previously, he worked for the national team that developed Scotland’s Standard for Headship and delivered Scottish Qualification for Headship programmes. Nowadays, he focuses on developing middle leaders to improve pupil attainment.