Middle managers can find it hard to get answers to questions like "How am I doing?", "What are my strengths?" "How can I improve?" Even where schools take appraisal and feedback seriously, it tends to focus on institutional rather than individual issues and needs.
Four middle managers from a North Yorkshire school got answers to these questions through attending an assessment centre organised by the county's leading provider of feedback on management performance.
The National Educational Assessment Centre has been helping senior managers since 1990 and recently extended its work to middle managers. Most attend as individuals but the headteacher of Rossett School, Harrogate, thought it would be useful for a group of staff to be assessed together.
John Whittle, himself one of NEAC's trained assessors, said: "Middle managers are the key to making schools succeed and the NEAC process gives the key players a chance to focus on their needs and developments."
The four - two heads of curriculum departments, the head of lower school and the school's personal and social education co-ordinator - attended for a day at Grantley Hall near Ripon.
They took part in four exercises: two discussion groups in which they produced decisions from a mass of conflicting evidence; a 10-item in-tray containing many of the day-to-day issues which come the way of any middle manager in school; and then they were given information on which they based a short presentation.
The final part of the day was given over to a structured interview. Pat Sealby, PSE co-ordinator, found this "challenging but enjoyable" and Mike Benson, director of social sciences, said it was "a surprise to find out just how thorough the assessment was".
The group was observed by four assessors, all experienced heads who have gone through NEAC's training. Each observed a different participant in each of the exercises and then assessed their performances across a range of competencies.
Five of these - problem analysis, judgment, organisational ability and decisiveness, leadership and sensitivity - were measured on a six-point scale. The others - oral and written communication, stress tolerance, interests and motivation and educational values - while equally important are less amenable to measurement but are commented on in some detail.
After the participants left the assessors spent 24 hours reviewing what they had seen and writing a 10-page report on each of them. Soon after, these reports and the possible actions were discussed with each participant.
Pat Sealby said: "I found the report a useful insight. It made me feel more positive about the complex nature of my job and the fact that I have the competencies to do my job well."
Fergus Donaldson believes "the observations were fair and objective". He is now trying to "move on the points raised by the assessors to improve my effectiveness".
Assessment centres aim to provide managers with a framework for developing their skills. NEAC national director, Malcolm Hewitt recognises there is "a growing demand for competency-based assessment as an integral part of professional development".
In John Whittle's view: "Heads need highly competent and motivated colleagues and the opportunity provided by NEAC was a real gift to our development as professionals."
Information about assessment centres for senior and middle managers can be obtained from NEAC, Oxford Brookes University, Wheatley Campus, Oxford OX33 1HX Tel 01865 485804
* see school management update