A pathway for development: middle leadership competencies

May 9, 2017
James Toop

James Toop

CEO at Ambition School Leadership

How to increase staff impact through the development of middle leadership competencies.

This blog relates to our online Leadership Diagnostic

At Ambition School Leadership, we believe that great leadership at all levels is critical to ensuring every child fulfils their potential.

The idea is simple: create a vision, define a strategic plan and deliver against it consistently.  But the reality is harder.  The critical leaders with the responsibility for delivery are middle leaders.  

There has never been a better time to be a middle leader.  Increased accountability and autonomy means middle leaders can now clearly see how their leadership directly impacts on pupil progress and achievement.  There are also new opportunities in the school-led system to increase their impact through collaboration within and across schools.

But there has never been a more challenging time to be a middle leader.  Every leader remembers stepping up to their first leadership role, moving from being a peer to a line manager, and managing up to SLT.  But today’s middle leaders are doing this in a rapidly changing policy landscape which requires new skills from even the most experienced middle leaders.

To be successful, today’s middle leaders undoubtedly need a core set of new technical skills in areas like curriculum design, performance management, and assessment without levels.  But the leadership behaviours they require are consistent and have a well-researched evidence base.

These leadership competencies are the behaviours, habits and ways of thinking that contribute to superior performance in any given role.

2013.09 Headship Institute - Blessed Thomas Holford futureleaders30-1.jpg

A shared model of development

Competency models are common in many fields.  American psychologist David McClelland started the work by looking at high-potential leaders, and this was then developed by The Hay Group and adopted by the National College of Teaching and Leadership (which many of you will know from NPQH assessments). 

At Ambition School Leadership we have refined the competency model further for the programmes we run.  We use competencies to identify strengths and development areas of individual middle leaders and teams which we then use to track the progress middle leaders are making against their development goals.

We have now distilled some of these competencies into a new leadership diagnostic to help school leaders develop their middle leadership team. This easy-to-use online tool asks 18 questions that provides school leaders with an initial insight into the strengths and development areas of their middle leadership team.

We’ve put the competencies into six clear groups that centre on the leadership aspects that have the most impact on the outcomes of every child, regardless of their circumstances.

1. Strategy and vision

2. Communication

3. Relationships

4. Teamwork

5. Delivery

6. Planning

On our Teaching Leaders programme, we have a full 360 competency framework which allows middle leaders to explore individual development needs.  This 360 analysis also tracks the same leadership competencies through senior leadership, headship and executive leadership, so leaders at all levels can use it to monitor development needs through their careers.

"For our leadership programmes we don’t expect perfection from our participants, but we know that having strengths in certain “growth factor” competencies indicate the potential to develop at a faster rate."

Identifying high-potential leaders

Our goal is for these competencies to be used across the sector, to strengthen leadership pipelines, support talent retention, and improve the aspirations, progress and well-being of students in disadvantaged areas.

All of the competencies are important and we use them in our selection processes to identify high-potential leaders who can make an impact in the schools in challenging contexts. Detecting different levels of different competencies allows us to predict future behaviour, and gives a signpost as to where the candidate is on their leadership journey.

On the Teaching Leaders programme, each participant has their competencies challenged and developed by the completion of an Impact Project to improve pupil outcomes. This serves to embed their learning on the programme and to ensure that their development has the greatest impact on pupils, especially pupil premium students.


What do great middle leaders do?

In 2016, the think-tank LKMCo worked with us on some research that looked at the behaviours of Teaching Leaders participants. It identified the competencies that were most strongly correlated with pupil outcomes. 

The three that stood out were teamwork, planning and delivery. 

  • The best middle leaders build strong relationships by being consultative and collaborative, being diplomatic, and knowing and developing the teachers within their departments
  • They plan well ensuring the conditions were right for their teams to deliver by focusing on areas such as timetabling and resource management
  • They focus on delivering ensuring that systems and processes are right to monitor pupil performance

We believe everyone can develop their leadership competencies and that you can support your team to develop theirs too. Our diagnostic tool is designed to help you reflect on your middle leaders’ strengths and development areas, and we have a team waiting to offer in more in-depth support. 

Some competencies are undoubtedly easier than others and we have to adopt a growth mindset approach to leadership competency development.  We don’t expect perfection from the leaders on our programmes, but we know that having strengths in certain “growth factor” competencies indicate the potential to develop at a faster rate.

And that’s what our programmes are all about: developing great leaders to transform outcomes for our most disadvantaged pupils.  Undoubtedly, moral purpose is one of the hardest competencies to develop. But if you’re a middle leader and you want to make a difference to the lives of children, Teaching Leaders could help you to develop the other areas to make that pupil impact a reality.

This article originally appeared on the website of the Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute. 

If you would like to know more about our Teaching Leaders programme, fill in this enquiry form and a member of our School Partnerships team will be in touch.

Search blog posts by topic: