Leading from the middle

Written by: James Toop | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The Teaching Leaders charity exists to support and develop middle leaders in schools working in challenging circumstances across England and is expanding its role in primary schools. James Toop explains more about the programme

This year has been one of significant change for primary schools with new progress and accountability measures as well as new assessments.

As headteachers are increasingly required to “step up” to take on a greater system leadership role, spending more time out of their own school, there is also a greater demand on primary middle leaders to “step up”, taking on more responsibility for sustaining good outcomes, developing staff and managing performance both within their own context and increasingly across a number of schools.

This need is all the more acute in schools in challenging contexts where there is often an additional challenge around the supply, recruitment and retention of teachers and leaders.

We developed the Teaching Leaders Primary programme in order to equip middle leaders to be able to lead with confidence through these changes. The two-year programme is designed to enable middle leaders to transform pupil outcomes in reading, writing and numeracy, and close achievement gaps, by unleashing their full potential.

As the education landscape evolves, we are particularly looking at how middle leaders can be more autonomous, collaborative and motivating for those they work with, while also keeping them focused on the heartbeat of middle leadership: leading teaching and learning. Here’s how:

Supporting greater autonomy

We encourage middle leaders on our programme to increase the level of autonomy and accountability they assume with their teams. We support participants to develop their knowledge and understanding of how effective leaders manage this level of autonomy through workshops and seminars focused on: implementing a strategic vision, strategies for change, holding teachers and support staff to account, running effective meetings, holding difficult conversations and managing conflict.

We encourage participants to apply and reflect on their learning in their own context through the implementation of their Impact Initiatives (projects designed by participants to raise attainment in their area through a series of focused, evidence-based interventions).

Building collaboration skills

Changes in the education landscape mean primary middle leaders need to be more confident in sharing their practice and more proactive in creating a culture of collaborative learning and continuous improvement both within their school and across different schools. We help them build the skills to do this.

Year one supports a team of middle leaders to collaborate on a whole-school impact project that contributes to the school’s development goals. In both years of the programme, middle leaders work in peer learning groups, formed of middle leaders from two to three local schools, to share practice and provide challenge as they implement their Impact Initiatives.

In our evening seminars middle leaders have the opportunity to network and collaborate in their learning with peers from other schools in similar local contexts. The orientation events, training and residential (year two) provide additional opportunities for our middle leaders to network at a local and national level. Teaching Leaders’ national primary movement will number more than 800 participants this coming summer.

Keeping staff motivated and building capacity

We recognise that the wellbeing, workload and morale of teachers, leaders and other staff in primary schools, especially those in challenging contexts, can lead to real issues related to effectiveness and retention.

Recent studies show that a third of teachers say a heavy workload is the factor most likely to have a negative impact on their motivation. We work with our middle leaders to help them to build team capacity within their contexts.

We begin their learning journey by asking them to look at how they can motivate others. We then help them to develop their own emotional intelligence and self-awareness as a leader so that they recognise how this can motivate and empower their teams to achieve better outcomes for students.

We believe effective middle leaders develop others and we recognise the importance of using a coaching and mentoring approach to ensure good levels of accountability while also building capacity in teams. All participants receive regular one-to-one coaching from an experienced senior leader and as part of year two participants benefit from formal training in how to coach. Better leadership and greater motivation leads to empowered and supported teams, which in turn translates into higher retention rates for both the middle leaders and their teams.

Leading teaching and learning

However, the absolute foundation of middle leadership in schools in challenging contexts has always been the effective leading of teaching and learning. And this will be just as important in the future as it is today. Improving leadership of teaching and learning is a key focus of coaching sessions, peer learning groups and evening seminars. We focus on the topics of effective monitoring and feedback, the strategic use of data, developing the curriculum and the effective use of data.

It has never been a more exciting time to be a middle leader in primary. Greater recognition of this tier of leadership and the impact they can have on pupil outcomes means that senior leadership teams are increasingly turning to their middle leaders to effect real change. The question is, are we all equipping them for this journey? 

  • James Toop is the CEO of Teaching Leaders.

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