Heads of department are the backbone of schools, but too few are given the training or skills the job demands. Matthew Brown reports on a course that eases the move into management.
Eighteen months ago Eileen Shell was a fresh but frustrated head of department, struggling to find her feet in a new and unfamiliar role. "One day you're a classroom teacher with a head of department who's in charge of all the decisions, leading the team and doing all the admin," she says.
"Then, suddenly, the next day, you're doing it."
Ms Shell is head of history at Ormesby school in Middlesbrough, a specialist engineering college. As has long been the tradition in British schools, she took the step up from classroom teacher to head of department with virtually no experience or training in the new skills she needed as a middle manager.
"I was going to meetings with senior managers and not understanding the language they were using," she says. "And I lacked the confidence and the strategies to work with teachers in the department, to use their expertise."
Ormesby had two other recently appointed middle managers facing similar problems: Jean Hebden, head of food and textiles, and Jane McGill, head of vocational GCSEs. So when deputy head Lynn Percy suggested they take a new course run by the National College for School Leadership (NCSL), they leapt at the chance.
"This is the first national course for middle leaders," says Anne McCormick, assistant director of the NCSL with responsibility for the Leading from the Middle programme, which started in September 2003. "Middle managers must be able to lead other people as well as be experts in their own subjects, and there's a whole layer who have had no leadership training."
According to the NCSL, 7,000 teachers have completed or are taking part in the programme, which starts in September or April, lasts three terms and combines online distance learning with a practical project focused on the teacher's particular needs. The course is open to groups of at least two staff from the same school supported by a "leadership coach" from their senior management team.
"We wanted to focus on networking and collaborative learning," says Ms McCormick. "By gearing it to groups of teachers we can encourage them to share their learning, take it back to their schools and think about how it applies to them. It encourages teams within a school to work together."
The idea of the coach, says Ms McCormick, is to give the participants a "champion" on their schools' senior management teams. "Senior managers need to know what their leaders are thinking," she says. "Headteachers' ideas and visions only go as far as the middle leadership level; if they don't buy into it, they can stop it reaching the classroom."
Eileen Shell and her colleagues at Ormesby were coached by Lynn Percy.
"Although an SMT usually pushes a school's vision, it's the middle managers who are key to delivering it," says Ms Percy. "Traditionally in education, people take on these roles without any training. The senior management team at Ormesby wanted to focus on middle managers, to make them a more important part of the process, and this course appeared to help us do that with minimal disruption to school life."
For two of the group, the transition to leadership was proving all the more difficult because the previous heads were still in their departments, working as advanced skills teachers. "It was a bit awkward," says Ms Shell.
"It was still their department in a way, so we needed to work with them while trying to move the departments forward."
The potential for tension and fragmentation was evident, especially with new leaders who had yet to develop confidence in their decisions and the self-assurance to use the expertise of other members of staff. "They could have had difficulties to deal with and areas of conflict, but it hasn't arisen," says Ms Percy.
According to Ms Shell, that's largely down to skills gained on the middle managers' course. "We learned strategies to help us get the best out of the whole department," she says. "We learned how to work as a team and to set out what we wanted in a way that gets others on board. We would have done these things anyway, eventually, but it would have taken us longer to get there. This has helped us to do it more sensitively."
The course demands two or three hours' study a week from each participant, including time using an online "virtual school" that allows them to try out decisions on an imaginary school community and see the consequences. "It gave us a chance to try ideas out without having a hands-on disaster in the school," says Ms Shell. "It made us think and gave us time to reflect on what we were doing. That is so rare for teachers - usually we have so little time." The course also includes three "off timetable" training days with course tutors and groups of teachers from other schools, as well as a couple of twilight sessions.
For Catriona Stone, a science teacher from Highcliffe school in Christchurch, Dorset, these out-of-school days were particularly valuable.
Ms Stone started the course in September 2003, when, as head of year and leader of the school's PSHE and citizenship teaching, she felt the need for training. "We talked a lot about our strengths and weaknesses in a very intense way," she says. "We looked at ourselves critically. It was difficult, but very important for building self-esteem."
For Ms Stone, this is where the role of the "coach" came into its own: in her case it was assistant headteacher Nigel Campbell. "It was great having Nigel to talk to. He kept a general overview and acted as a counsellor."
Ms Stone was particularly keen to raise the status of PSHE and citizenship, which suffered from a poor image among Highcliffe staff and pupils. But to do so she needed to gain confidence and improve her strategic thinking. The course helped her identify problems and work out how to tackle them. She learned how to "coach" people and practised visualisation techniques to improve her handling of departmental meetings. "I had eight tutors and support staff to motivate," she says. "So I started to visualise the meetings, thinking about everything that could happen and the consequences, so I could deal with them if they did."
She started writing a weekly piece on citizenship for the staff bulletin, made links with organisations outside school, such as Dorset police and local prison officers, and took students to political events in Dorset and London. Halfway through the year, Ofsted arrived and in their final report the inspectors wrote: "Pupils display good qualities of citizenship...
supporting each other and respecting differences."
The school's leaders were impressed, so much so that they decided to create a new senior position that would take over Ms Stone's work on citizenship, PSHE, study skills and personal training. She applied for and got the job, becoming team leader for student development and effectiveness, and a member of the senior management team.
"The course gave me the confidence to go out and be a manager," she says.
"It changed me. It helped me believe that I knew what I was talking about.
Balancing management duties and teaching duties is difficult, but middle managers do an important job. They are the backbone of a school, but they are often overlooked."
That was true in Ormesby, too, says Eileen Shell, but now middle managers have grown in stature; no longer just facilitators, they all understand management-speak well enough to make their own contributions to leadership decisions. "The thinking used to come down from senior management and we took it forward," she says. "Now we send ideas up as well. We're seen in a new way and being given tasks we wouldn't have been given before."
Ms Shell is now piloting key stage 3 strategy across the school, for example, while Jean Hebden has been giving subject-specific talks to schools throughout Middlesbrough. "We're all more able to see the big picture now," says Ms Shell. "We wanted to provide cohesion in our departments but now we also see how they fit into the whole school."
Such has been the course's impact on this trio of teachers that the school now has a waiting list for places on the Leading from the Middle programme.
As for Catriona Stone, according to her headteacher Judith Potts, she is "walking a foot taller, exuding confidence, and is an able leader and manager".
Leading from the Middle costs pound;330 per middle leader (no charge for the coach) and is fully funded for schools with up to 100 pupils. About 3,000 places are available on each cohort. Applications for the the next programme close on January 21. More details at www.ncsl.org.uk