In the middle is a difficult place to be

HELPING TEACHERS DEVELOP THROUGH CLASSROOM OBSERVATION. Edited by Diane Montgomery. David Fulton pound;18.

PROFESSIONAL LEADERSHIP IN SCHOOLS. By James Williams. Kogan Page pound;18.99.

LEADING THE IMPROVING DEPARTMENT. Edited by Alma Harris. David Fulton pound;22.50.

The importance of middle managers in school improvement is now fully accepted, which ought to make the job a little more satisfying. As Alma Harris says, heads of department are an essential ingredient in raising the performance not only of their own team, but "there is a major possibility of influencing whole school development". James Williams is more direct. "A brilliant headteacher, without the right middle management layer, will almost certainly fail."

It's also one of the toughest jobs because, by definition, you are in the middle, and too often it can feel as if your agenda is always controlled by someone else. Such a potentially powerful role can feel oddly powerless. Hence the need for good literature to help us strive beyond mere administration towards real leadership.

James Williams has strong credentials for his Professional Leadership in Schools. His book originates from a Teacher Training Agency-sponsored course for middle managers at Brunel University, where he works as a teacher trainer. It has chapters on time-management, developing action plans, team-building and - something we all need - managing meetings.

The book is a slightly uneasy mix of popular and academic theory (school improvement gurus Peter Drucker and Theodore Hesburgh are there; so too are Douglas Adams and Gordon Gekko, the ruthless money-maker of the movie Wall Street), plus some practical hints on appropriate topics.

There's good advice on interviewing ("an effective interviewer listens for 80 per cent of the time"), but not enough on how to write a decent reference. The chapter on managing staff performance (which, for me, is the central role of middle managers) is surprisingly thin, though it contains some nuggets of wisdom.

Overall, this is a useful guide for someone about to take on their own department or curriculum team. Its reassuring style and mix of theory and practice should leave you better prepared for the role ahead.

Diane Montgomery's book ( a second edition of Positive Teacher Appraisal through Teacher Observation) has a slightly misleading title. It starts with a history of performance management in English schools, which sets the scene for the rest of the book. There is a chapter on observation techniques, with case studies. There are interesting chapters on effective learning and effective teaching. For my taste, the author intrudes too much into the text, but I picked up some new ideas. For example, I learned that undergraduates typically remember 5 per cent from a lecture, 10 per cent from books and 90 per cent from having to teach something. If you want to put lesson observation at the heart of your management (as you should), you'll find some useful approaches here.

By far the best of the three texts is Alma Harris's Leading the Improving Department. It provides research data on successful departments, the essential ingredients of effective managers, and definitions of good practice. Better still, these are followed with case studies and evaluation sheets to use with your own teams. All are clear, straightforward and confidence-boosting. It's a model of how school improvement research can help frame our work in schools and, when well mediated by an author, provide starting-points for our own practical steps.

GEOFF BARTON

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI school, Bury St Edmunds

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