Recruitment and retention

A looming middle leadership crisis must be averted

Some achieve middle leadership and some have it thrust upon them, but too few are thriving in their ill-defined roles, write Sinéad McBrearty and Dan Morrow

Some achieve middle leadership and some have it thrust upon them, but too few are thriving in their ill-defined roles, write Sinéad McBrearty and Dan Morrow

29 Jun 2022, 5:00

For most of us, when we accept a promotion there is a giddy sense of achievement – maybe a desire to ring your mum – a sense of progression towards a career goal, or a dream job. There’s usually clarity around what it means. What the extra responsibilities are, what we’ll let go of to make room for them, and of course the additional pay and benefits. Unless you’re in school middle leadership, that is.

It’s not clear what it means to be a ‘middle leader’ in schools today. There is no clear guidance defining the broad umbrella of roles that include year or phase Head, subject or department head, SENCo or designated safeguarding lead. Some middle leaders who Education Support spoke to for the Pressures on Middle Leaders in Schools report took on extra responsibilities out of a passion for their subject or commitment to their school. But others had their additional responsibilities thrust upon them due to a lack of other willing participants.

This obviously isn’t always the case. Many middle leaders Education Support spoke to were very intentional and passionate about their additional responsibilities. But it is clear that middle leader responsibilities are often added to teaching ones with little attention paid to when the work will get done or how new responsibilities coexist with classroom hours. The middle leaders we spoke to consistently said that despite working long hours, they feel like they’re constantly ‘juggling’ or ‘spinning plates’. They described feeling like they weren’t doing a good enough job at any of their responsibilities.

No one thrives if they live in a permanent state of feeling behind, or needing to catch up. This is a recipe for burnout, even among the most committed pastoral lead or department head. One primary school SENCo told us she doesn’t expect to continue with her middle leader responsibilities when she has children. The consensus was that middle leadership simply isn’t compatible with family life.

This is a worrying state of affairs as we careen into a teacher recruitment and retention crisis that’s squeezed at both ends. Emotionally exhausted leaders desire early retirement and recruitment numbers are not where they need to be. This has the potential to leave further pressure on already overwhelmed middle leadership to step up and take on yet more responsibility.

Yet, this important cohort can play a vital role in schools if they are properly supported and appreciated. There are many school leaders across the country who understand this and act supportively. Middle leaders readily recognise and value this support. 

No one thrives if they live in a permanent state of feeling behind

Unfortunately however, there is a dichotomy between school leaders who prioritise the health and wellbeing of their staff, and those who see burnout and high turnover as the acceptable cost of good results. The latter approach corrodes school cultures and the teaching profession in the long run. It also affects pupils. Children and young people absorb the stress and tension around them and learn to tolerate stress as a norm. One doesn’t require a crystal ball to predict the long term health effects of that.

The responsibility of senior leadership lies in supporting passionate classroom teachers who are happy where they are and in identifying and nurturing the talent that has an appetite to take on leadership responsibility. Both groups play a valuable role in children’s education, and neither should be forced into taking on so much unsupported extra responsibility that they break. This modus operandi drives poor health and breaks the psychological contract between staff and employer. The experience of a pupil in the classroom with a stressed and overwhelmed teacher is different to that of a pupil in a classroom with the same teacher feeling well supported.

At a policy level, we need more clarity and consistency around what it means to be a middle leader. Which roles are contained within this definition? What does good practice look like in terms of resourcing staff to take on additional responsibilities? The training needs and timetable adjustments required to step up should not only exist for the “lucky” middle leaders. They ought to be clearly established as essential tools for the job. Middle leaders perceive policymakers as disconnected and ignorant about the reality of life in schools. Addressing the inconsistencies of expectations and support around their roles would go some way to restoring their confidence in the system.

Before we find ourselves at a tipping point with recruitment and retention, let’s commit to properly supporting middle leadership. They take on important extra responsibilities that lie at the heart of the educational experience of pupils. Middle leaders, if treated well, hold the passion and commitment to deliver excellent education over the coming decades. They are not the ‘B’ team – they carry hope for the future of education in England.

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