Are your middle leaders ready to handle performance-related pay?


The move to performance-related pay has real implications for the ‘squeezed middle’ of the school workforce. Andrea Berkeley advises on how schools can help their middle leaders to meet this new challenge.


Like it or not, performance-related pay is here to stay. A new age of accountability in education is emerging not only through efficiency drives but also a renewed determination to tackle educational disadvantage and close the achievement gap.

The question now for schools is how to implement performance-related pay, while maintaining the focus on school aims and preserving the natural collegiality and collaboration of teachers that is essential to the smooth running of a school.

As is the case in many education policy changes or initiatives, it is the “squeezed middle” – the heads of departments and the pastoral team leaders – who are most affected.

In a survey of the challenges faced by middle leaders in schools, conducted by Teaching Leaders in 2009, heads expressed a wish for their middle leaders to behave less like advocates or representatives of their teams and more like leaders and managers accountable for staff performance.

The middle leaders in turn reported feelings of inadequacy in line-managing and holding others to account. Successive revisions to the Ofsted framework have changed all that and middle leaders now know that they are firmly at the centre of the accountability loop.

Chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said recently that the success of the performance-related pay reform would depend on the quality and consistency of performance management at school level.

The role of middle leaders

Although heads and governors are responsible for the design of the school’s system and processes for managing staff performance, including decisions on pay, it is inevitable that middle leaders will feed into processes in terms of assessing performance, even if only implicitly.

In essence, this is the sticking point for teachers. Teachers in middle leadership roles have got used to making judgements about classroom performance but many feel uneasy about the link with pay, both for themselves and others.

Effective performance management, like pupil assessment, involves both formative and summative, formal and informal processes. At the sharp end of the reform are the formal, summative aspects such as objective-setting, lesson observations and evaluations. 

The performance targets middle leaders set for this academic year with their teams will be the first to be evaluated under the new performance-related pay system and the first which could directly relate to pay. 

Agree with the reforms or not, they bring into sharp focus a number of key performance management questions. What is the quality of the objectives set? How stretching are they? What metrics will be used to judge performance? How reliable are these metrics? Will they be transparent and fair?

A positive appraisal process

What can senior school leaders do to make performance management a positive, developmental professional experience for teachers?

Have clarity around the measures and evidence used to assess performance. Performance metrics have a habit of creating perverse incentives which drive the wrong behaviour, leading to dysfunctional competition. It is a problem the corporate world has long had to deal with and it is instructive to see how they achieve collaboration, not always confusion and chaos, partly through creating a culture of feedback.

Be open, fair and transparent when using pupil performance metrics. Make sure that they are norm-related and accurate measures of progress against agreed baselines and that teachers are not adversely affected by the ability levels of the classes they teach.

Collectively involve staff in the identification of performance metrics, then apply them consistently but review them annually, as school contexts change.

Jo Owen, chair of the Teaching Leaders board, urges schools to be both consistent and creative in their decision-making: “Consistency with the school’s priorities is not just about exam targets or literacy and numeracy. 

“It can also be about values (collaboration not individuality) and non-academic priorities (wellbeing, engagement).”

Elsewhere, school leaders should provide training for all staff and support for middle leaders on objective and SMART target-setting (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based). 

Often the best way of doing this is to work alongside middle leaders and model the process. A whole-school approach to target-setting, involving and agreed by everyone, tends to result in a higher level of trust between school leaders and staff.

It will inevitably fall on middle leaders to domesticate the fears of their teams. It is quite clear from working with Teaching Leaders Fellows that many of them are already very clear about their accountability roles.

Supporting middle leaders

So how can middle leaders be supported in playing a positive part in performance review?

Provide them with training and support on using pupil performance and other data to set and monitor challenging targets for their teams of teachers. It is surprising how difficult many teachers find this process. Encourage them to use data in performance conversations with their teams.

Make sure that they are provided with accurate and relevant data and know how to use it. As we move away from standardised testing and national curriculum levels in England, this has increasing importance. 

The head of an outstanding school described how their internal end of year assessments are randomly marked by teachers in the department and moderated internally to ensure assessment data is accurate. If performance-related pay starts to make schools more rigorous about how internal assessment is conducted then that will be another positive step forward.

Create a culture of giving feedback at all levels – be explicit and define what is meant by feedback. Is it developmental, clear and action-focused? Are support structures in place to address performance issues? 

Structures and systems are important as a focus and benchmark for accountability but they should not change the importance of on-going staff development, mentoring and coaching to continuously improve performance.

Encourage upward feedback as well as downward. Middle leaders need to learn to “manage upwards”, to ask and invite the support they need. Feedback is most effective when it is two-way.

Provide training in holding regular line-management reviews as part of a continuing “professional conversation”, as well as training in having the more “difficult conversations” when required. As Russell Hobby, general secretary at the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “Success in appraisal depends on clarity about goals, finding objectives that are both relevant and achievable, and honesty about outcomes. 

“Done properly, it is not a bi-annual activity, but a permanent process of observation, discussion and feedback. The outcome of the final review should never come as a surprise.”

Critically, the senior leadership team can model a team culture that fosters the trust and support required to ensure that staff feel able to share weaknesses and development areas without feeling it will impact on their performance management at the end of the year.

  • Andrea Berkeley is education director of Teaching Leaders. Before this, she spent 30 years teaching and leading in challenging London schools. 

Further information
Teaching Leaders is an education charity which develops middle leaders in schools in challenging contexts. Visit You can read more about middle leadership in the most recent edition of The Teaching Leaders Quarterly. See


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