The job of being a "middle leader" - head of department or faculty, year or phase leader - has changed enormously in recent years. In particular, says Kathryn Hobbs, head of social studies at Ashfield technology college in Nottinghamshire, there is so much more attention now to teaching and learning across the school. "Heads of house used to have a pastoral focus," she says. "Now, they too concentrate on curriculum issues."
Clearly there is room for some research here - to identify and analyse the changes, judge their impact on teaching and learning, and discover what lessons are to be learned. So, Ms Hobbs, with her school's support, is starting this term on a detailed analysis of the middle leader's role, to find out what might work beyond her own school. She is doing this work as a research associate of the National College for School Leadership, seconded for 30 days spread over three terms. (She appreciates the flexibility that allows associates either to take a block of time or to spread it out as she has done.) Ultimately, she will interview her middle-leader colleagues at some length, but the structure and focus of the interviews will be guided by considerable preparation. "I'm asking them to keep diaries, and I'll do some analysis of job descriptions and of the minutes of meetings at which job descriptions are discussed," she says. "That work will provide the themes for the interviews. Then I'll have focus groups from other schools to see if the themes have any resonance with them."
Ms Hobbs is one of 79 heads and senior leaders who have taken advantage of the research associates programme. It is designed to offer them time to pursue a piece of research (with the college, or perhaps with a university department or with a local authority-based group of school leaders) that will further their own career development but also be of benefit to their schools and the college.
Thirty days does not seem long. Associates do not, however, lose contact after that. The college aims to build up a community of leaders who are in touch and available - what Martin Coles, who runs the research associates programme, calls "a cadre of people who understand research methodology".
The work completed by associates is varied, to say the least. It includes Tim Bright, headteacher at Bourne Westfield primary school, Lincolnshire, and Nick Ware, head at The Priory school, Orpington, Kent, who together have investigated how far new heads feel ready for the challenges they face, Alan Flinthoff's engaging study, Reservoirs of Hope, examining the spiritual and moral strengths that keep heads going in difficult times, and Alison Kelly's Team Talk, on sharing leadership in the primary school. All the issues are pertinent, and the reports - every school is sent the summary version of each one - make good reading.
The college's research group runs other programmes. Leading edge seminars, as it calls them, bring together schools with proven good practice, helping heads develop their ideas to a point where the college can publish and disseminate them. In a recent example, the college invited the heads of the 33 primaries praised by inspectors for their approach to creativity. A publication is in preparation.
Martin Coles says: "The college wants to draw theory and practice together - to help practitioners be less worried about research, and to encourage evidence-based practice."
It is not intended to be the same as a pure academic approach, says Geoff Southworth, director of the college's research group. "It doesn't make sense for us to act like a university department. We can buy their services if we have to. We try to bridge gaps and focus on practice and practitioners in ways that sometimes don't happen in universities."
National College for School Leadership: www.ncsl.org.uk
Application information for the Research Associates Programme: www.ncsl.org.ukindex.cfm?pageid=randd-associates-applications
Completed research associates' reports: www.ncsl.org.ukindex.cfm?pageid=randd-associates-completed