The seven secrets to middle leadership


The cogs of middle leadership are among the most important in the school system, but what are the secrets to being a successful and effective middle leader? Ben Solly offers seven key pieces of advice.

Often the most under-valued and over-worked, middle leaders are the cogs in the system that keep schools ticking over on a daily basis. 

The importance of effective middle leadership should not be underestimated as these are the individuals who really do put policy into practice. 

When middle leaders are most effective, they act as the well-oiled hinges between senior leaders and classroom teachers. While senior leaders set out the strategic vision for the organisation, it is the middle leaders who work with these guidelines at ground level, and ensure that their staff are working consistently within the collective frameworks.

Whether your job title is head of department, curriculum leader, or head of faculty, it is likely that you are one of the busiest people in the school, setting out your own vision and establishing your own departmental culture and ethos, while trying to ensure you deliver a consistent approach that adopts whole-school policies. 

You are the one that teachers turn to first when there are behavioural issues, the one parents wish to speak to if they are unhappy, and the one who has to answer to the head about exam performance in your departmental subjects.

Middle leaders often say they have to wear many different hats, but they need to be able to juggle lots of different balls too, and in the current educational climate, the stakes and accountability have never been higher. Below are my seven top tips to successful middle leadership.

Building teams

Possibly the hardest aspect of leadership is getting the people in your department to function like a team. You have to understand individual personalities, the dynamics of how the individuals interact with one another, and what motivates each and every member of your team.

If you can create a culture within a department where staff are motivated to accomplish personal, team, school and student-centered goals, then you have cracked it. But this is no mean feat – establishing this type of culture and work ethic does not come easily, it takes time, the skilful management of individual personalities, and lots of patience and leg-work.

Having individual conversations with members of your team about upcoming decisions can be an effective way of gauging individuals’ perspectives on the issue, while enabling them to have their say in a private forum.

Additionally completing tasks as a team can be a great way of getting people to work together – data-entry, marking and reporting can be lonely and tedious, but if completed in teams then processes like these can become less arduous (and you can get some moderation done too!).

Creating a vision

Leading directly on from team-building, is creating a collective vision. Schools will have a vision statement that heads up the development plan, and from which all staff work. But that does not mean individual departments should not have their own too. 

Indeed there may well be a long-established departmental vision statement that everyone signs up to and works towards – however it is worthwhile reviewing this regularly and deciding whether it is still relevant, and whether its values are evident in the day-to-day working of all team members. 

If you are starting up a new team though, or creating a new vision, then everyone needs a say in how it is developed. If team members do not feel ownership of the vision, then their working practice is unlikely to reflect what the collective ethos sets out. 

Ask your team to individually come up with their own statement and bring these collectively to a meeting. Then mindmap out what this vision means in practice and work out how you will also get the students to sign up for it. If you have student leaders in your department, why not let them have some input into it as well?

Capacity building

Effective leaders always build capacity in their organisations to ensure there is continual growth, fresh ideas and strength in depth. I always use the “under the bus” scenario – what if the leader of the department goes under a bus? Is there a second in charge who knows what they are doing and can effectively fill in as the leader?

What if the number two goes under the bus too – is there sufficient capacity to maintain high standards? 

The bus analogy is a little dark, but the implications of a lack of capacity within a team are stark should prolonged absence of leadership ensue.

As a leader, do you model what you do on an operational and strategic level to other members of your team, especially with your second in department if you have one?

Do they know how to maintain the day-to-day nuts and bolts of the department when you are not there? Do they know how you are accountable to your senior team line manager and what they require of you and when?

If you hold these things too close to your chest then this is classic authoritarian leadership which is a style that brings inherent risk, especially if you are absent. Ensure you delegate, role-model and share both operational and strategic information with your teams to ensure you have adequate capacity.

Quality assurance

Check, check and check again. In-school variation is the toughest nut of leadership to crack, and middle leadership quality assurance is the first step to ensuring consistent high standards across the school. 

Many a middle leader has come unstuck because they have “assumed” members of their teams were doing the basics correctly.

Planning, assessment, marking, data-entry, reports and parental contact are the “bread and butter” of every teacher, the Teachers’ Standards set these out explicitly – but are your team members meeting these standards on a daily basis? 

As a middle leader it is good practice to set out a quality assurance map that spans the academic year and incorporates processes such as learning walks, marking and feedback audits, lesson observations, moderation and data scrutinies – which should all be transparent, with their context and importance understood by all team members. 

The key to getting these processes right is to strike the right balance with your team – they need to know that you expect to observe high standards during quality assurance, but you need to complete these processes in a supportive and non-threatening manner.

It is important to share your findings by feeding information back to your team, so that you can highlight any good practice observed, and find collective solutions to any issues you found. 

Difficult conversations 

Some practitioners who are new to leadership roles will invariably find it challenging to have those “difficult conversations” with staff who are not performing to the expected standards. It is important that these conversations take place though, because if underperformance goes unchallenged, then a culture of low expectations could develop which will ultimately culminate in students’ education being compromised. 

If you are unsure about how to go about having these conversations with members of your team then seek the advice of a trusted professional colleague, maybe your line manager, or a member of the senior leadership team.


The popular word in education is resilience, but I like “bouncebackability”, the term coined by ex-footballer Iain Dowie. 

In all walks of life, and in all roles in education, you will receive set-backs and bad news. As a middle leader you will feel the pressure of exam results, coupled with the job of managing the morale of your team, while living up to the expectations of the senior leadership team and in this increasingly “academised” educational world, the board of governors. 

You need to develop effective coping mechanisms and strategies to ensure you are able to bounce back from inevitable disappointments. In the dark days of winter, when you and your staff are tired, you need to be the positive energy that maintains spirits within your team. 

Professional mentor

You cannot do this job alone. Yes, you have your team who work with you daily, and maybe even help you with aspects of the leadership of the department, but you need to have somebody who you can talk to about your role as a leader. This professional mentor should be someone who you can bounce ideas off, vent frustrations to, and be a source of help and guidance. 

Your line manager is not always the best person in this instance, so you should choose someone who you trust and who can give you impartial and professional advice. It may be that you worked with someone at a previous school who you can pick the phone up and talk to, or it could be someone at your current school who is a middle or senior leader that you have an excellent working relationship with.


Regardless of whether you are the most experienced middle leader on the block, or you are brand new to the role, in this rapidly changing educational world it is imperative that we all keep ourselves apprised of current developments and that we are reflective enough to know that although we don’t hold all the answers ourselves, we have the faith in our abilities as leaders to shape our teams in such a way that provides the very best education that our students deserve. 

  • Ben Solly is vice-principal at Long Field Academy in Melton Mowbray. Follow him on Twitter @ben_solly

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