The practice of great middle leadership

Feb. 14, 2017

Andy Buck

Chair of the Education Committee, Ambition School Leadership

Andy Buck, Chair of Ambition School Leadership's Education Board, identifies the key aspects of effective middle leadership.

Much of the research into effective leadership puts some data and evidence behind what we inherently know about the key tenets of middle leadership. Reading the research reminded me of the important tension between leadership and management within this role.

All too often the leadership qualities of vision, culture and team are emphasised, at the expense of the critical importance of management, systems and processes.

Below are the main messages that I take from the research, drawing on my experience as a headteacher and from working with participants on the Teaching Leaders programme.


People matter

  • It may seem obvious, but building strong relationships with your team really matters.
  • Getting that engagement through a real clarity of purpose, effective two-way communication, managing conflict tactfully and, most importantly, through supporting your team to grow professionally, builds strong discretionary effort and an effective team.
  • People who feel more engaged with their work and their team are also much more likely to remain in their role. Middle leaders play a crucial role in increasing teacher retention.

A tightly-run ship

  • They may not always seem as important, but making sure you do the basics well is crucial. It frees up your team to focus more on what they should be doing – focusing on the quality of teaching and pupil progress.
  • Meetings should be well run, processes for lesson and curriculum planning need to be fit-for-purpose and lesson observations and data analysis need to be effectively executed.
  • Ensuring you have readily available, accurate pupil performance data, good systems and processes builds the effectiveness of the team and their willingness to go the extra mile as they can see they are working in a properly planned and organised team.

Playing to strengths

  • Knowing where your team members’ strengths lie and planning for opportunities for them to take a lead in these areas is a great way of sharing out the workload of your team and enabling them to grow and develop, so long as you do this in a way that is seen as positive and supported.
  • Delegating is an important and yet difficult skill for middle leaders, as it is often very tempting to just do something yourself because you can usually do it better and faster!

"The best middle leaders take the time to keep up-to-date with the latest research and evidence, both around their subject area and the wider education and leadership contexts."

Being well-informed

  • Despite the pressures of day-to-day school life, the best middle leaders take the time to keep up-to-date with the latest research and evidence, both around their subject area and the wider education and leadership contexts. They also spend more time self-evaluating to see how they can improve.
  • Taking an evidence-informed approach to decision-making and prioritisation can have a strong positive effect on the performance of a team.
  • Once again, it also builds the confidence and thus the discretionary effort of your team if they know you are properly engaging with research to inform departmental improvements.
  • Twitter and networks such as Teaching Leaders, #womened and the teachmeet movement are great ways to stay connected.

Managing up

  • The senior and middle leadership teams of the best schools are connected. We regularly see that middle leaders are much more effective when they are well managed and manage up well.
  • This isn’t about surreptitiously getting your line-manager to do what you want them to without them even knowing, it’s about middle leaders taking their share of the responsibility for making sure both parties understand the pressures and needs of one another. Senior leaders need to know what they can do to support your work.
  • Middle leaders look to senior leaders to ensure the consistent follow-through on whole school behaviour policies. This can make a real difference to the ability of pastoral and curriculum middle leaders to build a strong climate for learning within their teams.
  • Middle leaders can then use this relationship to spread your own good practice beyond your own team.

This article was first published on LKMco's website and then on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute. 

Read the full LKMco report or our summary of research into effective school leadership

Teaching Leaders is our selective programme for high-potential middle leaders looking to increase their impact.

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