Research Insight: Effective middle leadership

What does it mean to be a great middle leader? Sam Baars describes LKMco's findings.

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Date published 31 January 2017

Last updated 21 March 2024

The research

Our report, Firing on all cylinders: What makes an effective middle leader?, analyses middle leaders’ effectiveness, how they go about their role and what helps and hinders them in their job. The report is based on three sets of data.

First we analysed data from English, Maths and Science departments that were headed by Teaching Leaders programme participants and compared their departments’ performance to the rest of the school. This meant we could look at performance in context and see when school A’s maths department particularly stood out from the rest of the school.

We then looked at their Head of Departments’ assessment scores from when they applied to the Teaching Leaders programme to see if any measures were particularly linked to high performing leaders.

Secondly, we surveyed 123 Teaching Leaders participants and alumni and asked them about their role, priorities and how they spent their time.

Third we picked four middle leaders from a random sample and four from ‘stand out’ departments and visited them to carry out in-depth interviews and identify anything particularly distinctive about the outliers. As part of the visits we interviewed 24 middle leaders, line managers and department teachers.


What we found

Firstly, our research revealed that leadership is not just about soft skills; management is key too. Any teacher who has walked into the store room to find there are no board pens left or battled with a badly put together timetable and time consuming systems knows what a difference good planning and resource management makes.

Of all the priorities they listed, how much middle leaders prioritised performance management, planning and resource management and managing data were the strongest predictors of their department’s relative performance. This area was also the single most frequently mentioned aspect of an effective middle leader’s role in interviews. As Gill, a senior leader explained:

"It’s okay to have the vision… but you’ve got to get people doing things that are important at the right time… planning lessons, delivering lessons within a structure… making sure that people are following behavioural systems, that if there’s a particular methodology to how things should be taught, they’re following that, checking up on that.

"But also getting people marking the books, you know, getting people doing the things around routines that are vitally important to the running of the school.”

Yet no department is an island and our interviews showed that in order to implement clear procedures and systems within their departments, middle leaders need senior leadership to promote these same systems across the whole school. One middle leader argued that their departmental systems for managing behaviour were undermined by weaker behaviour management across the school.


We surveyed 123 Teaching Leaders participants and alumni and asked them about their role, priorities and how they spent their time.

Secondly, our findings showed that strong team relationships are a distinctive characteristic of great heads of department. It became clear that without their teams behind them, middle leaders could not achieve their goals. Indeed, leading teaching and learning and setting vision and direction for their teams were the two activities which the middle leaders we surveyed were most likely to identify as ‘very important’ aspects of their role.

Our interviews went on to reveal three dimensions to teamwork

  1. being consultative and collaborative
  2. being diplomatic;
  3. and knowing and developing the teachers within the department.

As one middle leader explained: “I think it’s about knowing your team members, knowing their strengths and weaknesses and being able to develop them and know who’s suitable for what task so you can get the best out of each one.”

Thirdly, the team and the systems are key, we also found that in high performing departments leaders tend to be particularly ‘professionally informed’, always finding time to engage with policy changes and cutting edge research. Pete for example explained that:

“I’m very interested in the wider picture… keeping abreast of research and policy changes and just the general kind of what’s going on in education nationally at the moment and I do that through, mainly online actually through Twitter and blogs and things like that. That’s a really big thing for me, keeping abreast of current issues.”

As well as tapping into external research and ideas to inform their work, at the other end of the cycle, the best middle leaders also spent much more time on self-evaluation and this was the self-reported behaviour with the largest effect on a department’s relative performance.

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But not everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet; we found that teachers, middle leaders and senior leaders tended to emphasise slightly different things. Teachers focused on middle leaders’ ability to delegate and senior leaders were more likely to talk about them being results-driven.

It also seems that senior leaders may be applying the ‘no excuses’ mantra to middle leaders as well as pupils, since they were less likely than heads of department themselves to comment on factors that could hinder middle leadership’s effectiveness.

As always, it seems the challenge for senior leaders is to get the right balance between high expectations and empathy.

Ambition Greenwood2

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

- Andy Buck, Chair of Education Committee, Ambition School Leadership

Key conclusions

Andy Buck, Chair of Ambition School Leadership's Education Committee, identifies the following main messages from the research:

“Much of this research is helpful to put some data and evidence behind what we inherently know about the key tenets of effective 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, team are emphasised, at the expense of the critical importance of management, systems and processes."

Read more of Andy's conclusions here.

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

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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