Great middle leaders guide practice from the front in Foundation, but there are challenges to overcome, says Sarah Quinn…
Over the past year or so an increasing amount of my work in schools, as well as my speaker contributions at conferences, have been focused on middle leadership; and it would be safe to assume that this trend is reflective of the increased importance being placed on this particular ‘tier’, of late.
In fact, so important is the role that those taking on this often under-emphasised position play, that general secretary for the National Association of Head Teachers, Russell Hobby, was last year quoted as saying that “middle leaders have more day-to-day impact on standards than headteachers”, given that they are, quite simply, ‘closer to the action’. This is particularly the case in the early years of a child’s education, where, unfortunately, middle leadership has become a difficult entity of late.
Why is this the case? Many early years middle leaders strive for the position, only to find they are working with unsympathetic upper leadership who haven’t fully embraced the teaching versus play concept. Some have difficulties turning around existing staff locked into the ‘but we’ve always done it this way’ mode of thinking. Others are part of the teaching staff in a unit and therefore have to be the consistent and strong model of excellence, whereas some are in closed classrooms and must make a conscious effort to monitor what is happening in other classrooms. I’ve found that whatever your situation, preparedness and being proactive – rather than reactive – is the key to your success.
As key role models in their schools, middle leaders hoping to progress must demonstrate collective responsibility, be at the operational sharp edge of change and effectively manage staff. Anything that helps to instil confidence and drive performance should be applauded, yet in reality it is often all a bit messy.
One of the things that leaders tell me they find difficult is the development of some staff – not their knowledge and experience, but their attitude. Quite often the minority of staff will cause the majority of the problems in a setting. For example, the ‘mood hoovers’ who don’t want to be there, the ‘happy sappers’ who don’t see the joy in working with children.
It can be hard to change the mindset of some staff, but they have to come to understand that the emotional environment of the school is as important as the physical environment, especially for the youngest children in school. My mantra has always been ‘happy children learn’ but to enable happiness for some children is difficult.
Many have chaotic starts to their days, some feel anxious and sad, some do not have their basic needs met and it’s the job of the early years staff to provide a happy oasis for all children to thrive.
I’ve repeatedly said to staff, “Leave your baggage at the door,” to ensure that they don’t come to school moaning and groaning. During a course I delivered recently we discussed just this.
One delegate had the brilliant idea of a ‘10-minute baggage drop’, where for 10 minutes in the morning staff are allowed to have a good old moan. After 10 minutes are up, they’re happy! I also try to get staff to ‘be present’ and to practise mindfulness with children. By doing this staff invariably make them feel special as you give them full attention and live in the moment with them.
Inevitably, in schools where leadership is effective and middle leaders are clear about their roles having had the opportunity to evaluate the impact of their work, they are on top of these kinds of issues. They know what is working well, what they need to improve, and how they plan to do so.
On the other hand, it’s equally common to come across situations where the so-called middle leaders are not in a position to respond effectively. It will come as no surprise that this has an overwhelming impact on performance, with the most effective middle leadership occurring under the most effective senior leaders.
The focus of the sector over the coming months, even years, must now be on defining the role of middle leader, and fine tuning the responsibilities that go with it. A consistent approach to supporting and training middle leaders, whilst ensuring that the expectations are formulaic – in line with the needs of the individuals within each school’s settings – will go some way to resolving many of the problems addressed within this article.
After all, as Mike Cladingbowl, former Ofsted national director, once said in ‘The key role of middle leaders – an Ofsted perspective’, “High-quality middle leadership is about more than managing a subject or an aspect of school life. Middle leaders are enthusiasts for their subject, good managers and administrators – but to be truly effective they embrace the more challenging characteristics of leadership, which are to do with vision, strategy and a drive towards improvement.”
Leadership in the early years is a gift. As a middle leader you have the ability to influence the attitudes and practice of a team of staff who have the ability to influence the lives and experiences of the youngest children. Get it right and we hook them into education for life. Get it wrong and we fail the children most in need of our support and development.
In my journey to becoming an educational consultant, I built a toolkit of materials and methods to be used in a variety of situations, which I now share with other leaders as the ‘Early Years Leadership Toolkit’; you can gather your own training materials too:
Gathering information – Within my toolkit I ensure statutory elements are covered and that I have consistent methods of evaluating the quality of all aspects of provision. I have information gathered from research about leadership and early years practice and methods of assessing and tracking children’s progress.
Conducting research – One of the main things I started to develop was in-class research. When I ask middle leaders what research they do in class they invariably say “none”, but when we look at the solutions they’ve developed to solve problems and close gaps, they realise research happens as part of everyday practice.
Recording findings – When you start to record research you, by default, build a pack of training materials for staff members. Some settings use a creative ‘floor book’ method; they recognise that floor books are great for supporting children’s learning and as a tool for reflection, and now use the same method with the staff in school.
A family-run organisation based in Saddleworth providing advice and educational support to primary schools and academies, Focus Education is committed to enabling schools and academies to be the best that they can be. It is proud of its work and values, maintaining a strong public sector heart whilst working with over 3,500 schools in England and producing upwards of 180 publications.
Training interview: Forest School Leaders