How to implement a new strategy as a middle leader


Implementing a new strategy is a common challenge for middle leaders. Ann-Marie Smith discusses how she successfully embedded, monitored and evaluated a new approach to giving student feedback

Embedding strategies within a faculty is policy; monitoring and evaluating can become personal. At the heart of any strategy you implement are the students that your faculty teaches. As a middle leader, understanding this distinction is essential for the success of the strategy and therefore the success of your students. 

My school is in a deprived area of inner city Coventry. We are well above the national average for Pupil Premium students, SEN students, ethnic minority students and English as an additional language students. 

In August 2013, one term into the post of director of teaching and learning mathematics, we received the news that we had achieved the best GCSE maths results ever. We were ecstatic. For the first time we were in line with the national average for not only three levels of progress, but four! 

The challenge for me now was this: how are we going to maintain this upward trend? How could we become an “outstanding faculty” once more, especially when at the start the new academic year I had a new and relatively inexperienced faculty including two Teach First participants (both year one), an NQT, and two long-term supply teachers?

I decided to look at the existing school priorities, and identify which priority would have the greatest impact for students in maths. This became the focus of the strategy I wanted to embed. 

The chosen priority

Our chosen priority was to ensure that the verbal and written feedback that students receive about their learning is regular, consistent and suggests how they can make progress. The challenge was to embed this new strategy, gain buy-in and ultimately improve progress for students in maths 

Alignment with whole-school strategy 

My reasoning for looking at school priorities and choosing one of them (improving feedback) as a major focus in maths was so that my team knew it was important and did not feel that this was just one more strategy that they had to implement. 

For me, consistency between the school priorities and the maths department’s priorities was vital for creating a culture of success. When there is consistency there is clarity of expectations, and staff feel confident about the direction that they are heading because it is in line with the whole-school approach.

My plan was not just to embed feedback within my faculty, but to empower my team so that they had the confidence to modify feedback strategies to respond to every student’s need. I wanted all staff to feel that they had the tools that they needed to achieve this.

Empowering the team

As a result, the entire faculty attended training on the importance of providing feedback, and the importance of allowing students to have quality reflection time – known as DIRT: Dedicated Individual Reflection Time. 

The school policy for providing feedback to students is “two stars and a wish” so I adhered to this structure to ensure consistency for students across all subjects. 

At the end of the first term, we evaluated the impact on our students. The team agreed that feedback was having some impact, but it was not significant enough for us to continue providing feedback in this way. 

The “two stars and a wish” were being collated together which meant that students had to search through their work to find what their stars and wishes were referring to. Together we took the decision to start placing the stars and wishes next to the relevant piece of work within the exercise book. To embed DIRT more effectively, feedback was now to be provided in one of three ways depending on the need of the student: with a reminder prompt, with a scaffold prompt, with an example prompt. Working together as a team and creating a culture of sharing ideas within a safe space allowed for an environment where ideas were well received and easily implemented.

Monitoring and evaluation

The next phase, and the most challenging phase as a middle leader, was the monitoring and evaluation of this new strategy. The process of embedding a strategy can be difficult to separate into phases, but it is essential that you do this; embedding strategy is policy (this requires general agreement and team consensus), monitoring and evaluating is personal (it is where emotions can become involved as individuals within the team compare themselves to one another). 

Being conscious of the distinct phases of a strategy, I outlined a timeline of when monitoring and evaluating would take place, by whom and what the focus would be. This enabled discussions and empowered the team to talk through any concerns they had. It ensured that the “personal element” did not derail the success of the strategy. I used a variety of approaches to monitoring in order to ensure our findings weren’t biased. These included student voice, learning walks, rigorous book trawls and observations.

The results 

We are currently half a year into embedding, monitoring and evaluating feedback in maths. My findings to date show that dialogue among my team and their students is now based around learning. Both staff and students are aware of exactly what they need to do to progress to the next level/grade.

Three tips for middle leaders 

Know your staff: quickly identify their strengths and weakness. What motivates them? What are they passionate about? Once you have this information you can use it to drive the faculty forward by creating opportunities for all of them to excel. This gives them a clear role/purpose within the faculty. I have found that this set up is supportive and productive as staff who struggle with a certain aspect of teaching and learning can immediately source the best person to help them.

Know your students: and ensure that your staff know their students to be able to tailor strategies according to what works for them.

Know your senior leadership team: without buy-in from the top the success of any strategy will be limited. 

Fundamentally, embedding any teaching strategy within a faculty needs the support of the leadership, staff and students. My key question to you as a middle leader is this: how will you inspire all three groups to be as passionate as you are about implementing a new strategy? 

  • Ann-Marie Smith is director of teaching and learning for mathematics at Foxford School and Community Arts College and a Fellow of Teaching Leaders.

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. The charity is currently recruiting its next cohort of middle leaders. Visit


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