'Austerity might be biting, but it is essential we continue to invest in middle leaders – they are the beating heart of every school'

Middle leaders work in the engine room shovelling coal, while simultaneously trying to steer the ship

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Being a middle leader within education today is the toughest job. That’s the case I want to make, unapologetically. It’s the only job in school that combines teaching, leading, managing and learning, all in full-time capacities. HoDs are always trying to cover all the bases. Just because someone gets (a relatively small) Teaching and Learning Responsibility (TLR) payment, that doesn't mean there should be free rein on their time and workload.

Middle leaders are sandwiched between classroom teachers, who teach perhaps 20 periods a week of relentless back to back, progress-measured dalliance, and the SLT, perhaps teaching a scattering of lessons, but spending the remainder of their time in meetings, on duty, talking to parents or (in some cases) enforcing callous accountability systems. The HoD does all of the above, for a smidgeon more pay and one or two more measly free periods: mainly used to catch a bit of breath. I don’t think they get a particularly good deal in schools. An assistant headteacher (usually) has double the amount of free time, a third more pay and yet isn’t “accountable” for the results of a given department.

“Middle leaders are the engine of any school. In many ways they are the most important leadership group in the school. The most important,” Michael Wilshaw said in 2014. Operationally, its well acknowledged that middle leaders play a crucial role in school improvement, driving change at grass roots-level, in touch with their teaching staff hourly, never mind daily, delivering key policies, informing, cajoling, encouraging, modelling. All this, while planning lessons for (probably) some key GCSE groups that will make or break the department. Cue exhaustion on a scale unimaginable to your “middle leader” in private sector business. A requirement to present 20 times a week to clients while managing a small team and getting effective results would either warrant a £50k plus salary or some immediate time reallocation. Someone in the organisation would probably look and say “this isn’t fair, reasonable or productive for our business”. HoDs do several full time jobs, one of them is teaching. They are working in the engine room shovelling coal, whilst simultaneously trying to steer the ship. Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s, subject leaders were mainly responsible for keeping things “ticking along”, their role has now grown exponentially.

The challenges of “teaching leadership”, particularly for those new to the role, are immense. I spent too long firefighting in my previous role as HoD, plugging gaps. Something happens, you respond. Another thing happens, you respond again. You write a report on the response. Repeat this cycle five or six times a week. I hardly ever said: “I’m not going to do x, y and z so that I can sit down for a few hours and think about strategic planning.” I found it very difficult to make time in my mind or in school to think about the big picture. It left me rather deflated.

Also, I think we presume that if a teacher is great, they will have the skills needed for leadership and management. I feel there is a huge gap in training provision in the middle. There seems to be much for NQTs and even more for heads. But middle leaders seem to be the last port of call when it comes to CPD provision. To take a HoD off timetable is the most costly for a school; they teach nearly a full timetable, probably several GCSE and A-level groups and they probably teach them well. For NQTs, there is a pot of money and less to risk by allocating some CPD time. Equally, for members of SLT, it might be possible to avoid buying in any cover at all.

We are now stuck in an era where budgets will be stretched, no matter what the government does or doesn’t do. Yes – a drive on grammar schools won’t help, but it’s the increase in the student population and teachers pay and pension increments that are the primary factors in the financial crunch. It’s my view that tough and radical decisions need to be made in order to preserve the professional quality of our middle leaders, with a particular focus on wellbeing.

First, middle leaders need more free periods. To create these without spending any more money, heads should allow support staff to facilitate self-study for some Key Stage 3 groups. I know this is controversial and, believe me, I would rather it not be required. But if it means that a few less outstanding middle leaders get burnt out and a few more students achieve their potential across the board, then so be it. A horrible choice, but to a HoD who looks at their timetable and sees an extra free or two on a day when their “to do list” is bursting at the seams, it would be a god send. I hasten to add that all teachers need more free periods, but im purposefully concentrating on HoDs here.

Second, assistant heads should be partners in managing departmental workload. I don’t think they should be asking HoDs for more and more but should be taking more and more off them. How? Well, to enable this process, there is one all-encompassing and time consuming aspect of an AST’s job that needs to be stripped back to an absolute minimum – accountability mania. No more requirements for them to trawl through spreadsheet after spreadsheet of (often) meaningless data and no requirements to perform endless observations, book reviews or student interviews and accompanying paper work. Instead, ASTs should be at each HoD's door saying: “Would you like me to give you a hand with writing that list of students for the intervention groups we have planned?” And, “Would you like me to give you some extra time to plan lessons? I’ll cover your period 5 lesson with Year 9.”

If Carlsberg made SLT. But seriously, we need to consider roles within schools at a time where everyone is under more pressure than ever before.

In essence, my argument is twofold. First, middle leaders are amazing and should be cherished. Second, we should consider new and radical ways to support them moving forward.

Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets @RogersHistory

For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue

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