Five tips for middle leaders trying to raise attainment


Middle leader Chris Byrne discusses the five strategies he employed to raise attainment within his department.


When I arrived as faculty leader for science and technology at Ormiston Sandwell Community Academy, I was tasked to increase the science department’s cohort of GCSE students by 30 per cent and increase their attainment from 50 to 93 per cent. 

I began to implement strategies and systems with a clear focus on raising the teaching and learning standards while maintaining consistency across the team. I have outlined below some of the strategies which I implemented, none of which I would say are original – success was down to a relentless focus on the basics along with a real belief that the staff and pupils could achieve the ambitious goals we set out. 

Does your team know ‘what’ to teach?

The specifications for all GCSE courses are available for free online. Download these, give them to members of staff and insist they have them on their desks in front of them when they teach. Staff will then constantly refer to “what” they need to teach in line with the specification.

The changes in curriculum have meant that sharing the language of the specification is now more vital than ever. The specification also provides the terminology used in the examinations as well as suggested experiments that they may ask questions about. 

After a few weeks of arriving, I would walk into any classroom and the staff member would wave a creased, highlighted specification, knowing full well I was going to ask for it. As a middle leader, this now meant that I was safe in the knowledge that my team knew “what” they were teaching. 


Long term: on many occasions I would hear staff say “I did not realise we only had two weeks left, I need more time” or “I have finished my section with three weeks to go”. I introduced a simple long-term map (see the example below) to help reduce instances of this happening. Staff would take just five minutes per lesson to plan using the map, and the process allowed me to have coaching conversations about why they were going to take time on certain topics and not others. 

Mid-term: the scheme of work for all science courses can also be downloaded for free from the exam board. This scheme of work has the specification links, suggested activities and tasks that staff can use to assess students. Once downloaded, you can then personalise it with the department and school’s priorities making this an outstanding scheme of work in half the time. 

Short-term: we are very fortunate in the science department in that we know staff will plan, in some way, a week early for their lessons because we need to order equipment. One way of improving this further was to ask staff to add their objectives for every lesson on their requisition sheet. This encourages deeper planning from the team and allows me as head of department to have those coaching conversations about certain lessons in advance.

With the time saved on the scheme of work, teachers create a lesson plan for every lesson – developing existing PowerPoints and worksheets. Staff can then use this library of resources to begin their planning. By opening this basic library up to the team, you empower your weaker staff to plan their lessons more efficiently, and your outstanding teachers can now spend time individualising lessons to the needs of the class, rather than creating plans from scratch.

The structure and systems in the short, mid and long-term planning brought the department forward very quickly and allowed for clear collaboration and teaching and learning dialogue to take place. 

Teaching and learning – provide a formula 

Many say there is not a formula for a great lesson. I believe that this rhetoric does not help and worries staff. When I arrived, the staff in the department were of varying experience and abilities. I believed in a lesson structure which, when followed for every lesson, has the potential to deliver results. It splits the lesson into two sections: activate and demonstrate.

Activate: pupils find out information for themselves either through reading text, completing an experiment, watching a video etc.

Demonstrate: pupils apply what they have learnt to show their understanding, e.g. role-play, piece of writing, debate. 

This structure was taken on board by staff and delivered in a variety of different ways. 

To push teaching and learning forward we also had weekly team meetings. In each meeting, a member of staff would bring a discussion item. This allowed staff to feel valued and empowered, irrespective of their teaching experience.

Reflection, Reflection, Reflection 

I am a big believer in reflecting on your own teaching. If we teach 20 hours a week that is 720 lessons over a 36 week year. How many times do we sit critically and reflect on our lessons?

I asked all my team to individually film a lesson they teach, watch it, reflect, and then delete it. From this they build trust in the idea that reflecting on your own practice can radically improve your teaching. We have now moved to “coaching buddies”, where two members of staff will observe a lesson together on film and discuss the good elements and areas for development. 

I would recommend using a tool like IRIS/Star teacher to any department and using them in a way that is not to share good practice but to improve one’s own teaching. Then when people are comfortable, begin to use it as a collaborative tool. 

Whinge and do 

At first I really did not like teachers “whingeing”. It seemed a very negative way to be. However, I soon realised that it was a really powerful tool to identify what needed to improve, so we now have the motto “whinge and do”. 

Staff come to the meeting with a whinge and what they did or what we can do about it. For example, “pupils never read the question in exams”. We sat and discussed how we could teach and train the students to read the questions more carefully.

Another was “pupils don’t know how to revise”. Again we sat and looked at strategies to teach revision skills throughout the years and find the one or two barriers which prevented successful revision.


The success of the department has been down to the support from the leadership team, the amazing staff in the science department, and ultimately the pupils themselves. Personally, I gained a huge amount from the Teaching Leaders programme, which provided high-quality CPD that allowed me to tackle the challenges that came our way. 

My final comment must be that being relentless in your pursuit for improving the chances of the students is your best tool for improving results. 

  • Chris Byrne is faculty leader for science and technology at Ormiston Sandwell Academy in the West Midlands. He graduated from the Teaching Leaders programme in November, winning the Pearson Prize for Pupil Impact.

Teaching Leaders
Teaching Leaders is an education charity whose mission is to address educational disadvantage by developing middle leaders working in schools in the most challenging contexts. Applications for the 2015 cohort are open now. To find out more, visit


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