We know that, compared to other countries in the OECD English teachers are young, less experienced and move more quickly either up the career ladder or out of the profession. This results in middle leaders with relatively little experience, and with fewer ‘wise old colleagues’ around them to mentor or give them guidance.
The average lower-secondary teacher in England had around 13 years’ teaching experience, which was around 4 years lower than the OECD average. The average primary teacher in England had 12 years’ teaching experience, in most other countries the figure was between 15 and 17 years.
The Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2018. John Jerrim and Sam Sims UCL, Institute of Education, June 2019
This picture is particularly true in London and so is a challenge for schools such as those I work with in my role at the London Centre for Leadership and Learning, at UCL Institute of Education
Future Zone is an educational improvement partnership of 21 schools in Islington, north London, which evolved out of an Education Action Zone formed in 1999. Future Zone currently comprises three secondary schools and 18 primaries. Over the past few years they have collaborated with us on programmes for their new and emerging leaders.
This case study describes the impact of two leadership programmes: ‘Middle Leadership’ and ‘Stepping Up to Senior Leadership’. They cover the years 2017-18 and 2018-19. Twenty of the partnership’s 21 schools engaged in these programmes, developing the leadership skills and identities of 83 teachers. Two of these teachers completed both programmes.
The teachers on these programmes – some with several years’ experience, others with just two – had roles including assistant headteacher or vice principal; leads in literacy, maths, inclusion, or in a phase like Key Stage 1; heads of humanities, modern foreign languages, dance; or had other central roles such as SEN Coordinator or lead for Early Years. In every case they had a line manager back in school with whom they could discuss their progress on the programme.
The Stepping up to Senior Leadership programme was made up of three face-to-face training days, inter-session tasks and readings, and a leadership for change project resulting in a presentation to their peers.
The Middle Leadership programme – with content appropriate to colleagues at that stage in their careers – was similarly constructed, but with five face-to-face days spread across the year.
There were common ‘taught’ elements to each programme. They both began with a consideration of their identities as teachers and their transitions to middle leadership or emergence as leaders entering SLT. Each group engaged with research about leading learning and leading professional learning. There was a strong focus for both on how to build teams, hold people to account and lead change, all while maintaining trust and integrity. We know from the literature and our own work (for example) that learning that might take place in a training room needs to be grounded in the contexts the teachers find themselves in if it is to lead to true development and improvement. Which is why the in-school element of the programme, where they devised and tracked the impact of a change project, was of equal importance.
For the middle leaders, the overwhelming outcome for the programme was the boost it gave to their confidence to meet the various challenges of their roles, for which their prior limited experience had not equipped them. They also valued the opportunity to meet and learn from others in similar positions.
‘It has been such as empowering learning journey as middle leader, which has left me with a vast array of knowledge, strategies and skills to support me in being an effective leader of my subject and other teaching related duties.’
‘Just allowing the opportunity to reflect on my middle leadership strategies and to think about how I can improve. It has been thought provoking and with genuinely useful research and methods for implementing effective change.’
‘The programme has helped me be confident and it has been a great opportunity to get ideas from other colleagues. I now understand that a ‘tool kit’ of leadership styles is vital with a focus on coaching to create a shared understanding about what needs to be achieved.’
Middle Leader confidence, at the start and end of the 2018-19 programme
What did the Senior Leaders say about their programme?
The responses to the Stepping up to Senior Leadership programme were similar:
‘The key to this course for me has been the practical application of its content into my everyday practice. Discussions, readings and activities were all very applicable and relevant to my experiences as a first year AHT.’
‘It provided me with opportunities to think about how I want to lead and what areas of difficulty I need to be aware of. I feel I have become more aware of the type of leader I don’t want to be and the elements I want to include in my own practice.’
‘I’ve been in my leadership role for a few years now, but this is the first time I have engaged with leadership theory and reflected on my own skills and development needs in such a thorough way.’
This final response was typical of many:
‘Rarely do we get a chance to leave school and spend time on developing ourselves with no other distractions. To do this in a supportive environment with other teachers at a similar level to you has been very inspiring. It has taught ‘theory’ in a way that is practical and relevant to our everyday practice which means it has an actual impact in school day-to-day.’
One of the teachers reported on the impacts of the programme upon her as a leader:
- A survey of my leadership skills gave an overall positive picture particularly of my use of trust, high expectations and caring and respectful interactions with staff, children, parents and governors.
- The survey pinpointed areas of development such as being more visible to the whole school staff community especially in terms of new staff; ensuring that I lead, engage and motivate these staff members.
- Through this project I have developed my ability to lead, plan and implement a project across KS2.
- The teachers involved in the project have been inspired and have had the freedom to develop the project to improve and inform their own teaching.
- I have learned that in order to make a project happen you must be visible and check in regularly offering support and advice.
- I am much more confident speaking to colleagues and giving advice/mentoring/coaching.
- I am much more confident giving critical feedback and taking critical feedback from my colleagues.
- My next steps as a leader will be to have a wider impact across the school.