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Are schools asking too much of their middle leaders?

A review of job adverts recently revealed the skills and experience schools are looking for in their middle leaders. Are expectations too high?

A trawl of job adverts for heads of department earlier this year revealed what skills and experience schools are looking for.

Excellent teaching is a must, of course, but most schools also want HoDs who will deliver a “vision and strategy” for their department “leading to improved outcomes”.

In fact, strategic planning is one of the top priorities for many jobs.

What makes this interesting is that Ofsted reports often single out middle leadership as an area for improvement.

In inspection reports, it’s not uncommon to read phrases like:

“Middle leaders’ evaluation of the school’s strengths and weaknesses are not wholly accurate.”

“Middle leaders rely too heavily on the headteacher and the deputy headteacher.”

“Middle leaders are not yet effectively monitoring and evaluating the impact…”

Expectation vs reality

Why is there such mis-alignment of expectations and reality in many schools?

Clearly, middle leaders are expected to lead from the front, set the vision and the strategic direction – and then put in place the plans to accomplish it – but in reality many are falling short. So why?

It could be that:

  1. Senior leadership teams haven’t sufficiently empowered middle leaders to develop and deliver their own vision.

  2. CPD is an issue – middle leaders lack the confidence or skills to effectively evaluate, analyse and plan.

  3. Heads of department are too busy fire fighting to step back and focus on the bigger picture.

So what can schools do?

1. Develop a culture that distributes responsibility for strategic development across the entire extended leadership team – all middle leaders with designated areas of responsibility.

Much has been written about the advantages of “distributed leadership” or “transformational leadership” – not only in education but across business and enterprise. Distributed leadership builds capacity for change and improvement, but it does require a culture of mutual respect and trust from the top down.

Professor Alma Harris’s excellent article delves further into developing a culture of distributed leadership.

2. Equip middle leaders with the skills and confidence to create their own vision, strategic direction and action plan for their area, set in the context of the school’s overall strategic plan.

Some middle leaders will need additional support and coaching to do this. One place to start is with these four questions every head of department should ask.

Working through the four questions gives middle leaders a scaffold for evaluating, analysing, evidencing and action planning – improving their skills and confidence. The ‘four questions’ process was developed through 20 years of working in schools and is the model on which iAbacus is built.

3. Find a way of simplifying and even standardising the way heads of department approach the task of creating a departmental evaluation and strategic action plan.

Most schools are sensitive to staff workload and keen to find ways to support staff in working more efficiently. When it comes to evaluation and strategic planning, an online tool like iAbacus saves time and effort. It prompts middle leaders through a tried and tested process of evaluation and analysis, seamlessly links evaluation with planning, and provides an easy way to share and collaborate on plans.

It also reduces senior leaders’ workload by combining information from each department, as the basis of the school’s overall strategic self-evaluation.

2019 Ofsted framework

With the 2019 Ofsted framework eschewing schools’ internal data, middle leaders’ intrinsic knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the area, and their vision and plan for how to improve, will be under even more scrutiny.

Going back to the initial point regarding job descriptions for heads of department, schools are absolute right to expect middle leaders to be able to evaluate, analyse and share their vision for improvement. They may just need more support from senior leaders in order to achieve this.

iAbacus can help – contact us to find out more, or try it for free.

You can also watch this video to see how iAbacus supports departmental and faculty evaluation and strategic planning.


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