Leading from the middle, with the University of Buckingham

The institution’s Ruth Corderoy looks at the importance of middle leaders in schools

“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. Here I am stuck in the middle with you.”

I’ve sometimes felt that middle leadership is like that: overworked, underpaid, down in the trenches fighting the unseen battles – we are the equivalent of the army’s NCOs. 

The army analogy is instructive: over the course of the 20th century it moved from believing that the ‘right sort’ would make natural officers and NCOs to realising that they needed better selection and training. Ring any bells? Education, whose bread and butter is training and knowledge, actually lags behind the army. Remarkable.

Most people in schools get their first post of responsibility with no previous experience of leading adults and no training in leadership. 

It’s assumed that showing competence in handling a classroom and not making too much of a Horlicks of the paperwork will translate into being able to lead a team of adult professionals. Rarely are middle leaders given specific training in leadership. 

Yet middle leaders are what make a successful school. The nature of schools means that even control-freak headteachers need their middle leaders to make things happen; Heads simply don’t have the subject expertise or even the time to control everything happening in classrooms or in tutor groups. Smart headteachers realise this, smarter ones join the dots: good training of middle leaders solves a lot of problems and pays its way, not least in freeing up senior leaders’ time. 

Ruth Corderoy

Leading comes down to people and systems, but people are the key. I have been driven to impotent rage by a non-functioning photocopier and a bad timetable but I have only ever lost sleep over people. One would think that teachers would be at an advantage when it comes to handling people, after all it’s hard to think of a more people-centred job, but crucially most new middle leaders’ experience has been acquired by leading children not adults and that is not 100% transferrable. 

Leading adults is tricky, and not just any adults; teachers. Teachers are an interesting bunch, I know, I am one. The full range of personalities is represented and they come with a fair spread of motivations, back-stories and knowledge. The best are deeply emotionally engaged with their job, they want to make a difference, or they did when they started, but that can make them sensitive to criticism. It really is personal. 

Leading and influencing such people is an art, one that none of us gets right all the time. I mostly learned from experience, listening to advice and making mistakes and that is part of the process but I wish I’d had some decent training. So we set out to fill the gap and build a course that was useful.

The University of Buckingham’s Postgraduate Certificate in Middle Leadership gets real. We explore where theory and the research and experience of others might help you get better at leading in your situation. The course encourages you to think, reflect and wrestle with the nitty-gritty of being a flawed person dealing with pressures from above and complex people below, it’s training that combines theory with honest self-assessment, rooted in experience. Come prepared to think, argue, laugh, challenge and be challenged. We aren’t perfect leaders and we won’t make you perfect leaders either, but we are committed to helping you get better. 

If this sounds your sort of thing, or if you just want to ask a question, then contact us at education@buckingham.ac.uk or visit buckingham.ac.uk/education.

Ruth Corderoy is Senior Lecturer in the Theory and Practice of Education at the University of Buckingham’s School of Education

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