Missionaries in position

25th May 2007 at 01:00
There's one bit of cruise ship tradition I always enjoy. It's when the captain, on the first formal evening, introduces his heads of department.

We are told each person's department, name, and country of origin (cheers from varying parts of the room), and it's always done with generosity, obvious pride and laconic good humour.

What strikes me is how disparate are these people's responsibilities.

There's an engineer, a financial expert, a housekeeper, a bar manager and, of course, the head chef, in a tall hat (biggest cheer of all).

The captain is in overall charge, but he obviously can't engage with all the details: what does he know of cocktail mixing, managing the bed linen, or making a thousand baked alaskas? So each department head has to be the one who holds his or her team very much to account.

I thought about this when I read Getting Out Through the Middle, from the National College for School Leadership, a study of five schools working their way out of failing Ofsted categories. In particular, I considered the role played by middle leaders.

Despite the acknowledged importance of middle leaders to school improvement, the study points out that there's plenty of evidence nationally of subject leaders' reluctance to take on the task of leading and improving classroom practice. They've seen themselves rather as "subject administrators", the assumption being that the monitoring of classroom practice was the job of the head and deputy.

For the five schools in the study, the key to success was their heads'

determined and ultimately successful efforts to help heads of department become effective middle leaders - in at least one, the symbolic title change "subject manager" to "middle leader" was made at the outset. They were persuaded and trained to make judgments about the quality of teaching and learning, and to provide support for improvement.

"Could I have done it without the middle leaders?" asked one head. "No, I don't think so. I needed them to preach the message. They are the missionaries out there selling it to their teams."

* 'Getting Out Through the Middle' by Jenny Francis. Download from ncsl.org.uk

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