The muddle in the middle

19th January 1996 at 00:00
Middle managers are an important element in a school's leadership. That's why Mike Fielding wants more thought to be given to training them.

The Teacher Training Agency's determination to target "middle managers" as a priority in the drive for more focused use of staff development funds will force schools to be clear about who middle managers are and what they are expected to do. We tend to use the term loosely - as befits a recent import into educational jargon. To most people in secondary schools, "middle manager" means "head of department" or "head of yearhouse", although this is not always justified.

If we give someone the title "manager", we are entitled to ask what and who he or she manages. The answers to that can range from "the stock" to "everything that goes on in the department". How often, though, does it include the quality of the teaching and learning and the professional experiences and development of the people working in the team?

These should be the central concerns of effective managers. Yet personal diffidence, a reluctance to question the professional integrity of colleagues and a non-interventionist school culture very often combine to leave the manager ignorant of what is going on except through anecdote and intuition.

When I talked with aspiring department heads about ways of monitoring colleagues' performance, nobody was very keen on direct observation or detailed analysis of their work. Even reviewing lesson plans and records seemed to suggest a lack of trust, and they could only justify regular observation of teachers as part of a two-way process in which the head of department was also studied.

Clearly, there are merits in teams of teachers observing each other in a spirit of co-operation and mutual learning, but in this case it underlined the squeamishness and fear about where classroom appraisal can lead.

Emerging tentatively from our "behind-the-classroom-door-I-am-unassailable" view of professionalism, we were confronted with a system proclaimed by one of its early protagonists as certain to "weed out incompetent teachers". No wonder there was suspicion.

That specific fear may have subsided but in its wake remains a reluctance to welcome observation, feedback and development as a legitimate tool of management. Hence surreptitious methods - team teaching, helping with particular classes - have crept in to achieve the same end. This is not good management.

Nor is it effective to leave discussion about career development to a head or deputy. A teacher's immediate manager should know about his or her intentions and provide help in fulfilling them.

Without this kind of involvement, managers cannot fulfil the other people-centred aspects of the role: mentoring and motivation. These require trust, knowledge and mutual recognition that these are legitimate responsibilities.

For middle managers in many schools, the management and leadership revolution which has overtaken the role of heads and deputies is still some way off. Heads of department are appointed for their teaching skills and curriculum knowledge, and heads of year for their sensitivity to children and ability to counsel. Usually neither is appointed on the basis of their skills with adults - their professional colleagues. And yet that is their most important role.

Courses for heads of department and year - sometimes called "middle managers courses" - may emphasise team-building and other management functions, but unless the school's culture calls for these skills, the teachers will have wasted their time.

That is why schools increasingly run in-house middle manager programmes. These are usually open to existing and aspiring middle managers and work from the premise that there is a real job to be done with the people in the team, as well as with the curriculum, pupils, finance and physical resources.

Leaders, after all, need followers and unless teachers accept that their immediate manager has influence over their performance, career and professional development, they are unlikely to let them exercise their full responsibilities.

Small departments and schools may have particular difficulty in establishing the required level of objectivity among colleagues who work very closely together, but this can also be true in larger schools unless the expectations, parameters and authority of the role are clearly spelled out.

An increase in middle managers' effectiveness not only requires the development of appropriate skills, but also changes in attitude to the role. For some teachers, this responsibility for their colleagues' performance and welfare may seem the most challenging aspect of taking their first major step up the promotion ladder. It is also be the most exciting and worthwhile to anyone who has genuine aspirations to make schools as good as possible.

* Mike Fielding is principal ofthe Community College, Chulmleigh, North Devon


Six departments successful in raising pupil achievements were found by researchers to have features in common including:

* Emphasis on the importance of pupils: raising expectations and support, rewarding positive behaviour and a wide range of achievements.

* Scrutiny of departmental results viewed not as a threat but as necessary for improvement.

* Acceptance that change is needed.

* A shared vision and enthusiasm for the subject and how it should be taught, emanating from the head of department and shared through constant formal and informal discussion.

* A collegiate approach with tasks and responsibilities delegated around the department.

* Resources well managed and deployed to enhance learning for all pupils.

* Systematic records of individuals' progress shared with pupils.

* Low staff turnover, and a consistent approach.

* Effective organisation of teaching through agreed, accessible schemes of work and content that matched the capacities and interests of pupils.

* Recognition by pupils that the department is different from most others in the school in the way it introduces pupils to the subject and makes learning enjoyable.

* From a study of secondary schools,by Alma Harris, Ian Jamieson and Jen Russ, published in School Organisation, Vol 15,No 3, 1995

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