Sir Michael Wilshaw on the importance of middle leadership

July 18, 2014
Sir Michael Wilshaw

Sir Michael Wilshaw

Chief Inspector of Schools in England

Transcript of speech by Sir Michael Wilshaw, 15 July, People’s History Museum, Manchester

Good evening everyone and thank you for inviting me to your conference – I have been in Manchester twice in two weeks, which is a real treat being a Manchester United fan.

I want to talk to you today about the importance of leadership. One of the first things I did when I was appointed Chief Inspector was to say in my annual report that leadership is absolutely critical and I really focused on it in that annual report. And I said that, whenever I see a report, my eyes are drawn to the section on leadership before anything else. Perhaps I shouldn’t say that, perhaps I should say achievement first and behaviour first. But leadership is critical. Without leadership and – you know this, and certainly teachers know it – without effective leadership, very little works.

I am always drawn to leadership and what inspectors are saying about it. And the reason why it’s so critical, is that teachers, good teachers, can beaver away doing their best, working hard, coming in early in the morning, teaching as effectively as they can, leaving late, and yet the school can be dysfunctional, even with that commitment by individual teachers, because the leadership is no good. And certainly I can think of at least one Special Measures school that I’ve worked in where that is exactly what happened: teachers were doing their very best, but because the leadership and the top leadership was poor, their work was uncoordinated, and they weren’t working as effectively as they could be.

So leadership is actually critical and that importance is built into your description: Teaching Leaders. You lead teaching. I hate the word ‘middle manager’; I despise that phrase ‘middle manager’. In fact I hate the word ‘manager’ in education. You are leaders of people. You are leaders of teaching.

Try not to use the phrase, “I am a middle manager”. Leading teaching is central to your leadership and central to the activity in your school. A good school is one where teaching is good, full stop. And teaching will only be good when it’s well led by a headteacher who is passionate about teaching, and certainly I was a headteacher passionate about what goes on in the classroom, passionate about young people, passionate about attainment, passionate about monitoring performance in school and doing a lot in terms of professional development, and you’ve got to be as well. If you are any sort of leader, you’ve got to be passionate about what happens in the classroom, passionate about teaching. Because headteachers create the vision, they create the framework, they determine the culture of the school, but you have to make sure that the vision that they have is properly implemented in the classroom.

Again, if I think of the failing schools I’ve been in, headteachers had wonderful documents, wonderful policies, wonderful prospectuses, glossier that glossy, but it didn’t work because the vision that was encapsulated in those glossy documents was not properly implemented in the school by other people who were in the school, particularly the middle leaders in the school.

Because middle leaders are the engine of any school. In many ways you are the most important leadership group in the school. The most important.

As I said, heads create the vision. They create the strategic direction, they depend on you to make it all work. The vision has to be translated and actioned in the classroom and your school has to be judged by Ofsted on whether the teaching is good or not, whether you know what’s happening, whether headteachers know what’s happening in schools, classrooms and departments. And whether you do? Do you know what’s happening in the classroom and department?

Inspectors’ reports always contain details on the effectiveness and impact of management at all levels. And there’s a synergy isn’t there? If we see good leadership from a head, we usually see good leadership from the middle leaders. I don’t think that I’ve seen a report that says middle management is great but there is poor leadership at the head. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. There has to be a correlation between a headteacher’s vision and a headteacher’s knowledge of what’s happening in a classroom, with your effectiveness as a middle leader.

Reports tell us, and I’m just reporting on some reports I’ve picked up, in outstanding schools, middle leaders play an integral role in highly effective performance management of schools. In these schools, middle leaders actively take part in monitoring the teaching and strongly support teachers in their areas.

The best middle leaders understand what is missing from a school and can find effective ways of making a difference. Successful middle leaders are interested in curriculum planning. They understand that getting a curriculum schedule to work is absolutely crucial to their work. The strongest middle leaders generally demonstrate an excellent understanding of data and are able to use this to track pupils’ progress and identify pupils that need additional support. And that is critical, absolutely critical.

Your role as a middle leader is dependent on your understanding of data. Not data for its own sake, understanding entry points and when they enter the school or they go to another year group, where a pupil will be. I, as a headteacher, had little time for a head of department who didn’t understand data, who didn’t know where children were and where they had to be the following year.

Inspector reports always contain details on the effectiveness and impact of leadership and management at all levels. In outstanding schools, middle leaders play an integral role in highly effective management systems.

In outstanding schools, middle leaders are highly visible in their curriculum areas and around the school. They interact well with teachers and students. Ask yourself that question; are you a visible head of department or middle leader? Are you out and about in the corridors? Do your staff know that you will be there to help with behaviour? Do they know you will be there to give them advice and support with the quality of teaching in your areas?

In weaker schools, middle leadership is poor because senior leaders either do not empower middle leaders or fail to delegate their responsibilities. In weak schools and failing schools, headteachers don’t empower their middle leaders. And in weak schools, they fail to describe their role. And that is why, when I was head, I took it upon to myself to chair the heads of department meetings, simply because I saw it as a crucial body in the school for the reasons I’ve already said – these people are the people who make things work, so I had to be there.

So what makes a good middle leader? They are good in the classroom. They are great teachers and are recognised as being so.

I take it you are all good teachers sitting in front of me and you are recognised as being so. Do you celebrate that around the school? Do you invite people into the classroom and say “I’m a great teacher”? If not, think about it. Celebrate that you are there as a middle leader because you are a good teacher. If you are not a good teacher you shouldn’t be there in the first place. How can you tell someone about good practice unless you are doing it yourself. So celebrate it.

But good middle leaders are also well organised. You are a great teacher, you love teaching, you are passionate about your subject and teaching children about it, you are also well organised. It’s a critical quality. And you are very professional. And by that, you exude profession in everything you do.

You know that you are in an important job, that teaching is a profession, it’s a noble profession, and you exude it in the way that works with teachers and with children. You dress well. You dress as professionals. Power dressing is important sometimes. Show your importance in your demeanour, in the way you hold yourself, in the way you dress. You are intolerant in the way that people let you down if they dress badly. I’m quite a stickler on these sorts of things because the profession gets a bad name sometimes because of sloppiness and sloppy appearance. So take a lead, lead by example.

You’re great role managers because you put children first. If you don’t put children first, the teacher in your departments won’t put children first. And you are passionate about high standards: you are never content with the status quo; you are never content with where you are at the moment, you always want to do that much better; you want to be the best department in the school.

Think about it, think about the school you are in at the moment. Are you the best Head of Department, or Curriculum lead? If you are not, what are you going to do about it? Because I often think that competitive heads, and I know there are some heads here, are often the best heads. You know a lot about collaboration. I’m often sick to death of hearing the word collaboration but the best people I know are hugely competitive. Because they want their schools to be the best and they want their children to be the best achievers in the local community, because they are passionate about high standards. Be competitive to be the best head of department. Because you can be the best head of department, the best deputy head, and you’ll be the best headteacher eventually. Never worry about being accused of being too competitive.

Middle leaders understand that being a good teacher and being a good leader don’t necessarily go together. They realise that accountability is at the heart of good leadership. You are accountable to the head, and those you are responsible for are accountable to you.

So ask yourself these questions. How does your headteacher hold you to account and are you clear about your responsibilities? I’ll pause there and ask you to consider what I’ve just said. How does your headteacher hold you to account and are you clear about your responsibilities? If there is any fuzziness or vagueness in your head about that then there’s a problem in your school. Do you have to provide data to your head regularly on performance? If you don’t, there’s a problem, given what I’ve said about data. On the quality of teaching, and performance management of staff, do you provide your headteacher with that information on a regular basis? On the assessment and examination cards, do you provide your headteacher with updates on a regular basis? Do you provide your headteacher with information on the culture in your areas and on how you are supporting staff on behaviour issues in your area? Do you provide your headteacher with a monthly statement on how you are using resources that they’ve devolved to you? Do the department policies that you have, particularly the Teaching and Learning policies – which are the most important – do they accord with the headteacher’s policies? Because that’s something that irritates inspectors, when they see that the school has a policy on XY and Z, but when they go into a department they look very different. And ask questions about the synergy of a school. Is your department’s school evaluation in line with the school’s system for school evaluation?

In the same way, you’ve got to make sure the people you are responsible for are accountable to you. It’s harder for you than it is for the head. It’s harder for you because you know the people you are managing really well.

You have coffee in the staff room. You probably socialise with them and go to the pub with them in the evening. You may go on holidays with them. They are mates as well as members of your team. So it’s much more difficult for you to hold them to account. A true sign of how good you are as a leader is that you can be collaborative but you also hold another member of your team to account. They see you as their boss as well as a friend. And that is why it is so hard. If you get it right though, you have the potential to be a great head.

When I was a head, I was very critical of middle leaders who wrote uncritical performance evaluations that didn’t tell the truth about members of staff’s performance. At the end of the day, it’s the headteacher who rewards the staff’s salary, depending on what you write. And the headteacher, if they are any sort of Head, they will know who the underperforming staff are. But if you pick up a performance document that says that this is great teacher, wonderful person and wonderful in the classroom, and we know that it is not the case, you know there are going to be difficulties with the unions: ‘the Head of department says this and you are not giving your teacher an increase in salary’.

You’ve got to get it right in terms of accountability, particularly with performance management and performance-related pay. Your job is not to be liked as much as we all want to be liked, but to ensure that children in your areas get a good deal – that’s your job. Holding others to account is tough as it can only be done if you care about expectations.

As a headteacher, you make it clear where you stand with your staff on a whole range of issues. One of the things I would have hated any member of my staff to feel about me was that they didn’t know what I stood for on disciple and attendance. I would want every member of my staff to know where I stood. That was the case for me and should certainly be the case for you.

You need your staff to know where you stand on a range of issues.

The temptation for a middle leader is to compensate for weakness in your team by doing the following: doing it yourself, that’s a weak member of staff – everyone knows it – ‘I tell you what I’ll just do it’. Don’t do it. A weak middle leader does that. Pretending a problem doesn’t exit and magically it will go away – don’t do that either. Marginalising underperformance which means inevitably that others do more work and will end up with some of your staff saying you’re weak as middle leader because I’m having to do twice as much work.

You’ve got to make sure you address key issues in good time.

And if there is any ambition to be a head – how many of you want to be headteachers? If you are a middle leader you can’t stay there for the rest of your life until you are 60! If you want to be head, you’ve got to get it right on performance. After all, what’s different now from when I was a headteacher is that there is now a performance agenda, there is no two ways about that. We live in a performance agenda era, and you will be judged as a head on how well your school is doing compared to other schools. Bottom line. That’s it. And if you are any sort of leader, you understand that and you go for it year in, year out and that’s why it’s such hard work.

Remember you are a leader of people, you are not a leader of statistics. Understand the people you are leading and the differences between them. Think about the people in your team – what are they like?

What are their strengths and weaknesses? How do you get the best out of them and how do you get the best out of long-serving but rather stale members of staff? How do you get the best out the enthusiastic teacher who is a bit naïve? How do you get the best out of them? Think about what makes up the characteristics of your department? The great majority of teachers, remember, are on a journey. So ask yourself how do you get them to improve their performance day in day out? How much of what you do is support? And how much of what you do is challenging? It’s getting that balance right of saying “I support you”, ‘I’ll be at the back of the classroom’, and striking that balance with ‘enough is enough, and if you carry on like this, I’ll take up a discipline procedure with you’. It’s getting that balance right.

How do you get the most successful teachers to lead training in your department? Think about your last Head of Department – was professional development at the top of your agenda or was it assessment? Because I think it should be at the top of every middle leader’s agenda: professional development, and getting your best practitioner to lead – not you, getting your best classroom teachers to lead on that.

That sends all sorts of signals about how well you know the teachers in your department and how well you are using them. How open are the doors to your office and classroom? Are they open or are they shut? Do people feel welcome to watch your teaching or not?

Are newly qualified teachers (NQTs) very well supported? If 30% of teachers or more leave the profession in the first 4 years of teaching that’s a big national issue.

Protect and support your NQTs. Retention is more important for headteachers than recruitment. And I, as a head, relied on my heads of department to make sure that my best teachers were well supported and stayed in school.

The message is always ‘aim high’. If you lead the best department, other schools will want to collaborate with you – who wants to collaborate with a poor practitioner and a poor leader? Collaboration is always founded on strength and the best leaders stand up for what is right and best for the children.

Stick to your principles. Don’t be afraid to make a strong case when things need to improve. Be ambitious but not too ambitious.

Serve your time as a middle leader. Don’t hop between schools.

I always think at least five to seven years in a school, see a year all the way through to a sixth form, I was always suspicious of leaders who just stayed a couple of years in a school then left – think about it. Gain experience of different schools. What’s so unnerving about being a headteacher? It’s common sense – getting on with people, being ambitious, being well organised, being competitive on all these things – there’s no mystique in it, if you’ve got common sense you can do it. Gain experience in different schools. Never be frightened to take on a challenge. That’s a mark of a great teacher and a great leader.

Taking on a challenge, not in a nice comfortable area, but take on a challenge in some of the most difficult parts of the country and I know that’s what all of you are doing at the moment.

London now, amazingly enough – and I’m speaking as an ex-headteacher from London – is quite an easy place to work and lead. It’s harder in the north and areas like Northumberland and Cumbria with little resource – harder in areas with big white working class populations, but if you have any sort of gumption, you can make a big difference there. So have you got the bottle to do it? Have you got the steel to do it? Well there’s a challenge for you. We need people like you to raise standards throughout the country and not just in the places that are doing well.

And the best thing is that they don’t moan – they celebrate what they do because they think it’s a great job. Because if you’re a leader, you look confident. Even as a head you know that if a fire alarm goes off, there’s a strike etc. you know that if you show stress, others will think you’re weak, will exploit it and become stressed themselves. It’s really important as a middle leader, you’ve always got to be calm and considered.

The best middle leaders seize the moment. It’s an exciting time and I say that because it’s an exciting time to be a leader.

We’ve got an education system which is in flux at the moment, growing autonomy – that’s not going to stop – there’s going to be more autonomy in the system – headteachers will have more power and resources than ever before. Resources are now in schools, they are not in local authorities, they are in schools – I suspect you are in schools that are holding enormous balances at the end of the year. This might not be the case for all. But money is now in schools, not the local authorities and certainly not in Ofsted, so think about that. Despite what anyone might say about today’s decision, Michael Gove was absolutely committed to raising standards.

It’s a good time to be a middle leader, so think about what you’re doing at the moment, think about the preparation it’s giving you to take on the leadership of schools and become headteachers, particularly in some of our most difficult parts of the country, and seize that opportunity and have a real go at it.

Thank you very much.


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


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