The middle leader’s toolkit

Written by: Steve Burnage | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

With a focus on leading teaching, learning and your team, Steve Burnage gives us 10 areas for reflection as well as key advice on effective strategies to develop your skills and outcomes in middle leadership

All middle leaders carry out critical roles in the leadership and management of schools and learning. Effective middle leadership is all about developing strategic understanding across four key areas:

  1. Understanding what it means for middle leadership and management to be successful.
  2. Knowing how to lead teaching.
  3. Knowing how to lead learning.
  4. Motivating, leading and developing your team effectively.

A successful middle leader

Middle leaders need to know where the area they are responsible for is now, where it should be and how you get from where you are now to where you want to be.

1 Leadership vs management

Leadership is about mission, direction and motivation. It is the expression of vision and the motivation of others to achieve that vision.

Management is the expression of leadership, the mechanisms by which vision is achieved. It is the designing and carrying out of plans and getting things done.

A good middle leader will know what they want for their area (they will have the vision) and will know how to lead the team towards it (know your leadership style).

2 Be able to turn vision into practice

Think about your middle leadership vision in response to these key questions:

  • What exactly will it look, sound and feel like when the vision is achieved?
  • How will you know you have achieved it?
  • What does the team think of the vision?
  • How motivated is your team to achieve the vision?
  • What would make it more motivating?
  • What stands in the way of you achieving this vision?
  • What are the steps involved in making this happen?
  • What will move us one step further forward to achieving this vision?

3 Know your leadership style

Not everyone chooses to lead in the same way. The choices we make on how we lead are generally a combination of our own personality style and the circumstances of the school in which we work. There are four basic leadership styles:

  • Directing: The leader provides specific instructions and closely supervises task accomplishment.
  • Coaching: The leader continues to direct and closely supervise task accomplishment but also explains decisions, solicits suggestions and supports progress.
  • Supporting: The leader facilitates and supports subordinates’ efforts toward task accomplishment and shares responsibility for decision-making with them.
  • Delegating: The leader turns over responsibility for decision-making and problem-solving to subordinates.

Although all of us will have one preferred way of leading our teams, a good middle leader will adapt their leadership preferences based on the strengths of individuals in their teams and the context of the school.

A good middle leader will know how to turn self-knowledge into action and lead learning and progress towards “outstanding”.

Leading teaching

4 Know the subject, department or area you lead

It is all very well gaining personal insight into our areas and “knowing them well” but we need to consider further just how we know our areas. To do this, there are informal and formal methods of gaining evidence.
Informal includes things like chatting, open door policy and simply being around. Formal includes things like minutes of meetings, lesson observations, planning, marking and observing students’ work, progress reviews, and inspection outcomes. Evidence enables us to make informed decisions, lead evidence-based discussions and “argue our corner” more effectively.

5 Put data at the forefront

You need to be able to access, engage with and analyse data to answer these key questions:

  • What is the context of your area and how does this compare to other similar areas locally and nationally?
  • What do our pupils attain in each year group and in national tests?
  • What progress do your pupils make given their starting points?

Further to this, you and your team should be clear about historic or retrospective data (relating to pupils who have completed a key stage) and tracking data (relating to current performance drawn from teachers; assessment and assessing pupils’ progress).

6 See improvement as an on-going cycle

Looking at your area’s performance data is often the starting point in an improvement cycle, which, typically, looks like this:

  • How well are we doing? Involves assembling and analysing evidence of pupil performance.
  • How much better should we aim to achieve and how do we compare with similar areas?
  • What must we change to achieve this? It is important for middle leaders to involve all staff in the target-setting process. It helps them to own the targets and to accept responsibility for achieving them.
  • Planning for improvement and what actions will we take? The closer development plans get to the work of children in classrooms, the greater the impact on achievement.
  • Implementation and review: Taking action and reviewing progress. Implementation of the plan needs to influence classroom practice and improve the quality of teaching and learning.

The evidence gathered in the final stage of the cycle allows middle leaders to ensure the plan is delivering the outcomes planned for, and to make any necessary adjustments. It also provides a valuable basis for beginning the next round of the cycle.

Leading learning

Leading your department or subject’s learning to outstanding is, understandably, a common thread in middle leadership discussions and should be the principal focus of your work as a middle leader, as should effective inclusion.

7 Know what makes an outstanding lesson

The three key elements that determine whether a lesson is outstanding are:

  • How well the pupils are learning and whether they are making excellent progress.
  • What the teacher does to engage, motivate and challenge their students.
  • What impact the lesson has on students.

The key focus should be the relevance of the activities and how they contribute towards pupils’ learning.

8 Make sure learning is inclusive

There are few things more important than making sure every student in your care makes good progress and is not held back due to any specific barriers to learning, or individual needs. To lead in an inclusive way, think about your area in the context of these questions:

  • What is your vision of what inclusion would look like?
  • Identify the specific barriers to learning of individual students, or those with particular needs, e.g. the more able.
  • How would you implement measures to help students overcome barriers to learning or progress better?
  • How can you utilise teaching assistants or support assistants where appropriate?
  • What strategies will you adopt to track the progress of individuals and groups, e.g. those in receipt of Pupil Premium?
  • What new measures might you put in place to help individuals or groups where necessary?
  • How will you celebrate your efforts to become more inclusive?

Leading your team

Effective middle leadership can’t just be about what you do, it must be about your leadership of your team and what you and they do together to move things towards outstanding.

9 Develop a team ethos

An effective middle leader can develop a team that works towards shared value and goals in a positive and supportive environment by:

  • Talking to your team face-to-face as much as possible.
  • Producing a weekly briefing sheet.
  • Noticing and praising good practice, displays etc.
  • Starting and finishing meetings on time.
  • Listening more than you speak.
  • Supporting individuals in their CPD.
  • Provide opportunities for staff to express their opinion and contribute to decisions.
  • Coaching colleagues by asking open questions to help them decide for themselves rather than telling them what to do.
  • Being consistent in your decision-making – use your core values to make decisions.

10 Tackle underperformance and reward outstanding practice

One of the biggest mistakes middle leaders (and senior leaders for that matter) make is failing to tackle underperformance quickly enough. Where there is an issue:

  • Be sure of your ground; use evidence as the core of your conversation.
  • Listen, listen, listen.
  • Take line manager advice, if necessary.
  • Choose a time and place.
  • Be polite but firm.
  • Refer to agreed team/school expectations, policies and/or guidelines.
  • Keep notes of the conversation.
  • Do it Now!

It is also worth remembering that colleagues respond very well to praise:

  • A simple thank you for a job well done.
  • In public give your team credit for success, and take responsibility for disappointment or failure.
  • Praise on specific accomplishments or efforts and in the presence of others.
  • Spontaneous praise.
  • Informal acknowledgements face-to-face if possible.
  • Letters of appreciation (from a more senior manager).
  • Celebrate team success.

Successful middle leadership is all about motivation and engagement – for both learners and colleagues.

To motivate and engage effectively, a good middle leader needs to bring several key factors into play:

  • Good subject knowledge.
  • Communication.
  • Interest and respect.
  • A supportive learning environment.
  • Good planning.
  • The use of assessment and SMART target setting.
  • The celebration of achievement.

If this is done alongside a clear vision and strong leadership, then all the elements are there to become an outstanding middle leader.

  • Steve Burnage has experience of leading challenging inner city and urban secondary schools. He now works as a freelance trainer, consultant and author for senior and middle leadership, support staff, strategic development, performance management and coaching and mentoring. Visit and read his previous articles for SecEd at


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