Middle Leadership | CLF Conference

It is probably true that Middle Leadership is the key role in an Academy for driving improvement. At its best it inspires children and staff to bring new light to what might be, improves quality of teaching, champions an enabling curriculum, drives up outcomes to deliver improved life chances for all (including the team members).

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It is also probably true that Middle Leadership is most effective when those concerned can be considered to be true experts in their field, when they lead by example with an ethic of excellence, and when they act in concert with their senior colleagues, supporting whole school improvement through highly effective day to day management…owning their curriculum, championing knowledge and learning, actively improving teaching and being clinical about improving outcomes.


Which begs the question: what are the key elements of middle leadership that makes the difference? The following What ifs… are inspired by the strong middle leadership that exist across the Federation.


What if middle leaders consistently created a culture within their team where risks could be taken and individual talents recognised, without losing the ability to challenge, to support, to direct and to critique? …a culture that creates the conditions where team members inspire and are inspired by their colleagues.

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What if middle leaders were respected and trusted in equal measure, so that their team members knew beyond all doubt that they would be receiving the best possible coaching and support to achieve outstanding outcomes through effective lessons? …where middle leaders are the champion of their team and subject/area.

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What if middle leaders were the first people in the organisation to offer feedback to their staff members, and the first to offer coaching to ensure the craft of teaching was honed and nurtured for each individual in their team? They are the agents of change who shift the quality of teaching.

What if middle leaders fully understood the crucial nature of their role in an Ofsted inspection, where the question on the Inspector’s lips might be ‘how is teaching more effective because of what this leader knows about achievement in this school?’

What if middle leaders championed the one chance that children have. Understanding the deep moral purpose that exists and generating urgency so that all children fulfil and reach their potential…taking seriously the need to reverse accumulated disadvantage for our disadvantaged children.

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What if Middle Leaders understood that the key strategy for accelerating a child’s progress and enhancing life chances was the consistent delivery of quality first teaching every lesson, every day.

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What if middle leaders secured delivery of key elements of the signature pedagogy; where a depth of knowledge, an ethos of excellence, along with teaching that stretches and challenges, that questions to unlock understanding and delivers effective feedback, accelerates learning?

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What if Middle Leaders were champions of their curriculum; understanding the need to develop a layered/spiralled curriculum that explores and revisits areas to depth and assesses knowledge, skills and understanding against age related expectations?

What if Middle Leaders were champions of their subject and pedagogy? Understanding the need to ensure a depth of knowledge inspires, understands the key concepts and mis-concepts and how pedagogy can be applied to accelerate knowledge, skills and understanding?

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What if middle leaders knew about the performance of different student groups not only over the course of the year, but building on previous years in the same school, charting their progress and matching it to departmental interventions and foci over time? …targeting those children that fall behind and accelerating progress to close gaps in attainment.

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What if middle leaders walked the line between the ‘statesman-like’ approach of the senior leader and that of a supportive family member to those in their team? …supporting and challenging improvements in performance overtime, both deliberately and compassionately.

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What if middle leaders prepared each meeting as they might a lesson, taking into account the learning experience for their colleagues, their diverse needs, the best way to structure the experience, to have seamless transitions, and a judicious mix of action, discussion, reflection, and imparting of information?

What if middle leaders had the confidence and competence to highlight areas of strength and weakness within the course of a school year or term, without waiting for external validation but seeking to collaborate with others to improve at an accelerated rate?

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What if middle leaders sought to achieve a discernible difference in areas that they identify for improvement?

What if middle leaders were at once confident enough to deal with emerging issues, and humble enough to ask for perspective, support, even validation from their senior colleagues?

What if middle leaders understood that they start to become organisationally blind after six weeks? What if because of this understanding middle leaders connected and collaborated deeply within and beyond their own Academy?

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What if middle leaders were able to ask for feedback not only from their line managers but from their own team and from their peers, knowing that feedback enables growth?


Maybe then individual subjects would develop at a fast pace, with outcomes for all students exceeding national expectations, and reducing achievement gaps between groups.

Maybe then teaching, our core business, would be consistently outstanding within each department and across each school. Set within an owned and inspiring curriculum.

Maybe then a generation of leaders would emerge that would have impact and influence well beyond their role.

…and Maybe then we would have the deepest job satisfaction, knowing we have performed unusually well and that our students are the real winners.

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Sally Apps and Dan Nicholls

October 2015

A culture of continuous improvement…

“Seek marginal gains to outperform – small steps that create a contagious environment, where a philosophy of continuous improvement engages everyone.” (adapted from Sir David Brailsford, 2015)

Sir David Brailsford eloquently and concisely outlines the key characteristics of high performing teams in this great 2 minute video…click the photo belowIt is probably true that there are some key principles that are at the heart of high performing teams that enable outperformance .. all of which are highly applicable and relevant to education.

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Sir David Brailsford identifies a number of key principles that allow teams and organisations to over-perform or out-perform others. These are explored below…

1. “Recruit the best people that you can find”. What if we are really fussy over recruitment; ensuring that we recruit the very best to the team? What if we were also focused on this being a good behavioural fit … given that attitude is the key aspect in creating an over-performing culture?  There are a number of organisation who largely recruit based on attitude – often gaps in core skills can be closed. What if we started with First Who Then What?…

g2g-first-who“Good to great companies first got the right people on the bus (and in the right seats) –and the wrong people off the bus –and then figured out where to drive it.”

(Jim Collins)

What if these were the superheroes, linchpins, mavericks or Freds whose connectivity and altruistic collaboration enabled the organisation to fly?


2. Seek out the “Podium people – ask, who is the best in the world?” What if organisations identified the best in the world? What if we then understood where they were, how and what they achieve? What if we then work out precisely where we are and then plot to close the gap? By setting direction for the “Podium People” in our field we set the expectation high. What if we habitually faced the brutal truths of our own performance?…

“have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” (Collins)

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By aspiring to reach and exceed Podium People we commit to do “whatever it takes” and embark on a journey, an accumulation of steps…

“What we can do and what the best schools do already – is ask where they would like to be in five years time (aiming for the podium) and what steps they will take to get there” … ” the best schools accumulate these small steps and describe themselves as being on a journey.” (Tim Brighouse)

What if we time limit the drive for improvement?…

“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough-time.” (Leonard Bernstein)


3. Seek Marginal Gains, because small improvements in a number of aspects that we do can have a huge impact to the overall performance of the team.

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What if we realised that impact, stickability and the effectiveness of any change is in the detail and that where change is planned, simple and purposeful big change and impact can follow? … often with unexpected benefits…

“We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow from small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly!” (Malcolm Gladwell)

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What if we understood greatness was about the choices we make and the discipline to see them through?…

“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice and discipline.” (Jim Collins)


“Leaders are only truly in charge when they inspire others to take charge.” (Simon Sinek, 2012)

4. Give Ownership, because with ownership comes motivation. What if we trusted that because we have set the destination … on exceeding our podium people/organisations and  that we have the right people on the bus … then these people are best placed to lead and make decisions? That by giving ownership we increase autonomy and this drives-up motivation and performance that is widely owned and more likely to be sustained. – “pushing decision making to the action” (David Marquett)

What if this ownership was allied to responsibility and accountability – a measuring stick and evaluation that rewards and supports motivation? … so that individuals know they are doing a remarkable job.

What if we connected individuals to collaborate? … Seth Godin reminds that groups/teams need a clarity of destination and an ability to connect and communicate … collaboration and improvement follows…

“…groups of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group only needs two things to become a tribe: a shared interest (vision) and a way to connect and communicate.” (Seth Godin)

What if, as John Kotter identifies, we create and facilitate connection and collaboration (right hand side) alongside hierarchy that challenges, supports and delivers accountability (the left hand side)? It is balancing these that create a successful, agile team/organisation.

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5. Absolute clarity of role – People need to own and absolutely accept the role they have, but importantly they need to believe it is the right thing to do. What if we understood that Individuals perform well when there is absolute clarity on what is expected of them? Too often leaders complain of poor performance only to realises that they have never been clear in the first place as to what was expected.

What if we also identify the standards and insisted on the highest of expectations – in all that you do? What if we create a positive, risk-embracing environment and culture so that we face the brutal truths and seek feedback and understanding to maintain continuous improvement?


Maybe then we would build teams in education from middle to senior to executive leadership that understand outperformance, borrow from other professions, sports and organisations to realise the leadership potential that exists.

Maybe then by asking…

  • …do we have the right people on the bus and in the right seats?
  • …do we know who the podium organisations are? – and how we close the gap?
  • …do we find marginal gains for continuous improvement?
  • …do we give and facilitate ownership for improvement and balance with accountability?
  • …do we have absolute clarity on roles and responsibilities and ensure that the standards and expectations are set high … within a feedback and risk-taking culture?

we would would better understand our organisation and how we create the conditions for great teams to grow, succeed and out-perform. After all, in academies/schools leadership and the extent that leadership creates high performing teams directly relates to the success or otherwise of the organisation.

“Delivery never sleeps.” (Barber)

March 2015