Firing on All Cylinders

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How do we keep middle leaders firing on all cylinders?

I was a middle leader for 8 years and it was one of the most fulfilling periods of my school career. In many ways, I had the freedom to lead a school within a school, in-line with school policies but licensed to support and challenge colleagues around me to work with our students. Throughout this time, I was directly responsible for almost £1 million of public funds, ordering and deploying capital and capitation resources for a very large design technology and (eventually) separate ICT department.

It was vital that I was well-planned and organised.

A new study shows that being an organised team-leader is key for middle leaders to get the best out of colleagues and pupils. According to the report, heads of department need to establish efficient systems and processes if their departments are to flourish. They should also take a diplomatic and consultative approach to managing their team, whilst never neglecting the importance of ‘managing up’.”

In this report, LKMco identify the behaviours, characteristics, enabling factors and barriers that contribute to or hinder a middle leaders’ success.


The research was based on detailed analysis of over 200 English secondary school departments’ performance as well as a series of interviews and case studies. It took place in two stages:

  1. the first drew on GCSE attainment data and combined this with data on the performance of 209 fellows according to the Teaching Leaders Leadership Competency Framework and survey responses from 123 Teaching Leaders fellows and alumni.
  2. Taking this large-scale data as its starting point, the second stage involved more detailed qualitative analysis of data from interviews with twenty-four teachers, middle leaders and senior leaders in eight schools. These elements were supplemented with a detailed literature review.


Departments that did particularly well relative to other departments in the same school (in terms of GCSE results) tended to be led by middle leaders who were rated particularly highly in terms of their ability to manage a team by their line managers. Meanwhile, when asked an open survey question about the personal characteristics and behaviours that helped make them effective, middle leaders also identified team competencies and team-level factors as some of the most important factors in underpinning their effectiveness.

Leaders of (relatively) high performing departments tended to attach particular importance to planning and resource management. It is notable that resource pressures were also one of the most commonly cited barriers to effective middle leadership.

Firing on all Cylinders Middle Leaders LKMco report research Teaching Leaders

This report was commissioned by Teaching Leaders and carried out by LKMco.

Isn’t it shame that ‘lesson observation and feedback has such little time? Again, data crunching appears top of the workload charts! (@TeacherToolkit)

Three characteristics and behaviours were particularly salient:

  1. Being open, consultative and collaborative
  2. Communication and diplomacy
  3. Knowing, developing and building a team

As well as underlining the importance of team-level factors and leaders’ organisation and management abilities, stage two also highlighted an additional set of behaviours and attitudes which we describe as ‘professional practice’ which includes being professionally informed and leading by example.

Not everyone has the same perspective on middle leadership

Stage two exposed subtle differences in the notions of ‘effective middle leadership’ between teachers in different roles.

  •  Teachers were more likely to focus on the importance of delegation whereas senior leaders were results-driven.
  •  Middle leaders of relatively high performing departments were particularly likely to exhibit characteristics relating to being professionally informed and being bold, innovative and resourceful.

Click to preview.

This report was commissioned by Teaching Leaders and carried out by LKMco.

I am proud to sit on the leadership faculty of Teaching Leaders. We need good middle leaders to help raise standards …



In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account in which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated for '500 Most Influential People in Britain' in The Sunday Times as one of the most influential in the field of education - he remains the only classroom teacher to feature to this day ... Sharing online as @TeacherToolkit, he rebuilt this website (c2008) into what you are now reading, as one of the 'most influential blogs on education in the UK', winning the number one spot at the UK Blog Awards (2018). Today, he is currently a PGCE tutor and is researching 'social media and its influence on education policy' for his EdD at Cambridge University. In 1993, he started teaching and is an experienced school leader working in some of the toughest schools in London. He is also a former Teaching Awards winner for 'Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School, London' (2004) and has written several books on teaching (2013-2018). Read more...

One thought on “Firing on All Cylinders

  • 29th July 2016 at 8:41 am

    Rest – Service – Focus on what matters and repeat at regular intervals 🙂 Important to maintain perspective, to re charge batteries and to enjoy what you are doing.


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