Masterclass - Middle managers - Oil in the machine

22nd May 2009 at 01:00
More important to schools than ever, middle managers hold the key to target-setting, performance and accountability

The very term middle manager is a reflection of the ways in which school organisation has changed over the years. For a long time those of us who became heads of year or departments thought of ourselves as precisely that - and the only managing that went on in schools was done by the head.

But there is more of a management culture in schools than ever - a reflection of a culture of target-setting, performance management and public accountability that has become a central part of teachers' lives. Headteachers have found themselves under increasing pressure to "deliver", so it is not surprising that a layer of middle managers has also emerged.

One consequence of this, and this is particularly true in secondary schools, is that relatively inexperienced teachers find themselves with responsibility thrust upon them. So what's the best way to boost the effectiveness of middle managers?

One of the principal problems faced by those in the middle is that they are constantly pleading to their colleagues not to shoot the messenger. The best approach to this is twofold. First, senior managers have to involve those in the next tier in proper democratic decision making before they are sent out to enforce such decisions. Secondly, it's up to the middle managers themselves to speak up and contest decisions whose validity they question before they go out and spread the good news. This proper ownership of the school's agenda is beneficial to everyone.

That said, promotion to middle management is not without its downsides. Although many schools have made huge strides in reducing the bureaucratic burden on teachers, it's still pretty demoralising when your responsibility consists mainly of completing mark lists or organising the chairs for assembly.

Inexperienced staff, in these middle positions, also need proper training and advice - particularly when it comes to dealing with issues outside school. Dealing with parents requires skill and expertise, especially in situations where those parents are unhappy with school provision. I can't count the number of times, for example, where I have seen a harassed head of year taking a tricky phone call in a noisy, crowded staffroom at a time when he or she is unprepared and not properly briefed. The establishment of proper protocols in schools can go a long way to avoiding such uncomfortable situations.

And there is one thing that middle managers can definitely do for themselves. As a training teacher I was always told that I should try out what I was asking my classes to do for myself to see if it worked. This is a lesson for managers too: never ask anyone to do something that you wouldn't be prepared to do yourself - and that applies to everything from setting marking deadlines to taking on the trickiest classes.

Boosting your esteem in the eyes of your peers is the best move the good middle-manager can make.

Jon Berry is senior lecturer, curriculum research and development, University of Hertfordshire Next week: Managing a budget.


For senior managers:

- Involve middle managers in decisions.

- Don't fob middle managers off with routine jobs.

- Provide training and establish protocols.

For middle managers:

- Don't allow yourself to become nothing more than a messenger.

- Prove yourself, but don't ask of others what you wouldn't do yourself.

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