The Squeezed Middle

imagesTeachers become Head Teachers because they have the vision and capacity to enable a school to improve. It’s a simple role and if time slowed down and days were twice as long every Head Teacher worth their salt could achieve everything on their own. Sadly, the Earth’s position in relation to the sun refuses to change and every Head must rely on the team around them to get the job done and this is often where things go wrong-or more accurately, this is where things grind to a halt.

I once heard another Head Teacher say that the problem with the leadership within any organisation is that it runs the risk of being populated with people who have reached their zenith and who aren’t talented enough to progress any further in their career. This seems rather mean-spirited but there can be a grain of truth in it. For the purposes of this post let’s assume we are not talking about the good ones. To all those dedicated Phase Leaders and Assistant Heads reading this, I am not talking about you, you are great. I am talking about that other lot and you all know who I mean: The Middle Leaders or to put it more clearly those people that would actually refer to themselves as a Middle Leader.

Middle-Leadership. I hate that term. It sounds so un-aspiring .It may as well be Not-Quite -Leadership or A-Bit-Of-Leadership or I’ll-Run-One-Staff-Meeting-A-Year-In-Order-To-Justify-My-TLR-Leadership.  Leadership is not about being in the middle: if you want to lead you have to be out in front.  You have to be visible and model the right attitude and behaviour to everyone else at all times. This is often where Middle-Leaders fall short.

To those newly in post I can’t blame them. Many middle-leaders start off with a reluctance to put themselves out there as an example to others especially if they were promoted internally. It is very difficult to start as a member of staff, on the same level as everyone else, and then suddenly find yourself in a position where you get to tell your peers how to improve. If anything, it can make Friday evenings in the pub awkward.

‘Anyone fancy a drink?’

‘Yes please, mine’s a gin & tonic.’

‘Piss off; you said my display was crap.’

However, given the right coaching and with the right member of staff however, this can be addressed quite easily. They will quickly develop, move on and start leading effectively without upsetting their peers.

But what about those long-standing Middle Leaders, the ones that have been there for as long as you can remember?  Blissfully unaware that they are not mentioned in your SEF or are not invited to any serious SLT meeting. During performance management it becomes apparent that they have no desire to move forward in their career and while I do not judge people solely on their long term career expectations, they are so lacking in whole school perspective or desire to go above and beyond they end up becoming a significant drag on school improvement.

These members of staff have somehow managed to get on the post-threshold pay spine but when you ask them to run an assembly at short notice they come out in a rash and are speed-dialling the unions before you have time to check the conditions of their contract. When you ask if anyone could monitor the lunch hall because you’re short staffed they always manage to raise their hand just after the NQT jumps up and says they would love to do it. They are ‘comfortable’ and in the ever changing world of school improvement they are as effective as woolly gloves on an i-pad.

School improvement needs everyone to see the big picture and understand not only how being effective in their role will impact upon school improvement but how their role may evolve. Sadly, it is often the ‘secure and safe’ middle leaders who find this so difficult to achieve. They are uncomfortable working out of their well-established comfort zone and unwilling to shift their goal-posts. They are so used to judging their success using the narrowest of parameters that when they start to feel the squeeze, they buckle and their insecurity and ineffectiveness oozes out of them for all to see.

What do you do? Send them on another Middle-Leadership course? Coach them? Hope they leave? Most of the time you know it would be easier to cut them out of the loop entirely and leave school improvement to the professionals but this in turn would most likely cause resentment from everybody else. Whatever you choose, it is likely it will be a compromise between leaving them to quietly have no impact hoping no one notices and squeezing them so hard they split.

I saw a documentary about the American school system. One idea that intrigued me was their approach to staffing. Each year all the Head Teachers within each state would meet at a convention and they would take with them a list of all their least effective staff. In the American system any teacher can be relocated to any school within the state at any time. Bearing in mind some states are larger than the UK you can imagine the connotations this brings with it. The Head Teachers call this system ‘shuffling the shit’. Each Head hopes that they return from the visit with slightly better ineffective teachers than they went with. I’m not saying I approve of this system but I bet any Head reading this knows whose name they would take to that convention.

Maybe, with groups of schools working together as academy groups, this model may come into practice. Not to ‘shuffle the shit’ but to think how to really develop and deploy effective leadership across a group of schools or a city or even the country. Strong leaders could be shared, weaker leaders could be placed in less challenging areas or more challenging areas in order for them to develop at a more effective pace.  Schools would be working in real partnerships with staff harnessing their skills to impact not just a single school but a city-wide/country-wide cohort. (Obviously this system could be abused: teachers living in fear, heads abusing their power, staff members becoming black listed from working in a particular city…but let’s ignore that notion for now and let me dream.)

The fact is schools cannot succeed due to one lone Head Teacher doing everything. A school’s success lies in the culture of collective and visible leadership that is promoted and demonstrated. Middle Leaders should be out in front. Not every leader needs to aspire to be a Head but they should feel that they are developing the skills so that they could step up if required. If that sounds like your cup of tea then you will be an effective leader at any level. If that sounds unrealistic and not what you came into education for, please don’t apply for a job at my school. If you’re already in my school then you’re on my list!

Ofsted – it may have been tough but it made me realise how much I care


Since becoming Head Teacher of a new school in September I felt I had a proportionately dispassionate view of the school. I had invested all of my energies so far in establishing what sort of school it was and working out the most effective way of making it my school. This meant re-establishing a school vision, ethos, set of expectations for standards and galvanizing the whole school community together. I had been pleased with how rapidly things got moving and as we entered 2013, after two terms, I felt that although it was becoming my school, my judgement of the school was still firmly rooted in the past. I believed that this was a luxury and I used it almost as a suit of armour: I could robustly challenge everything but with a safety net of it not being my fault. This also worked well with staff as I wasn’t necessarily judging or ‘blaming’ them but the systems under which they had been operating. This also allowed them the freedom to commit whole heartedly to my vision (or move on).

The pace of change since September had been rapid with numerous systems and structures being developed, invented, and implemented: all designed to improve standards across the school…at some point. I made the judgement call that the systems had to be in place first, in line with everyone’s commitment to them and then we could focus on using those systems to improve and monitor their effectiveness. So, I felt that I was in the ideal place for an early inspection and I hoped the school would get a challenging inspection judgement to help justify my changes. I was certain that I would be immune to any feelings of responsibility of past standards and that I would only feel fortified and reassured, ready to push on some more.

And then I got the phone call.

I was fine, I kept my cool and as I calmly told staff and reassured them that we knew what we had to do, I was certain that I could convince Ofsted that I was the right person, in the right school, doing the right job. As the first day continued, two rather unpleasant feelings began to run through me in successive waves: I was not doing the right job and I was letting everybody down.

I have never felt so inadequate in my life especially when trying to justify whole school trends over time after spending 22 weeks in the job. The ‘narrative’ of the school that I had been telling myself, my staff, my governors, my parents was falling on deaf ears. Suddenly the firm ground I had been standing on was crumbling from underneath me as the inspection began spiralling out of my control. I was terrified.

By late afternoon, I had concluded that my judgement on how to play the inspection had completely failed. I had planned to be incredibly positive. Positive about the inspection, positive about the judgement I knew we would get, positive about the size of the task in hand, positive about the abilities of everyone to get the job done. This evidently is not what the Ofsted team wanted to hear. Instead, they wanted to hear me say how awful I thought everything was and how when I had first arrived I had thought the school was a bloody disgrace to education. If they had heard that come from my lips, only then would they believe that the governors had backed a winner when they appointed me.

If at this point I was feeling inadequate as a leader, it was after the team had left that I began to feel even worse. Why? Because everyone was being so, well, nice. Teachers, support staff, governors and many parents began rallying around me saying incredibly supportive things to me. (Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t curled up on the floor weeping and declaring that the school might as well be taken out to the knacker’s yard and shot) but as I went around trying to support them, it was clear that they wanted to support me. It was then that I realised I wasn’t as detached to this school as I had tried to make myself believe. I also realised that my initial plan for improving the school had worked: everyone was united and behind me but sadly this just made me feel worse. On the outside I was trying very hard to put on a calm and brave face but inside all I was thinking was: ‘You’ve all put your faith in me…and all I’ve done is let you down.’ It was almost too much and that was the real surprise: I love my school!

Luckily, day two went better. The team seemed more willing to listen and they finally began to say the same things that I had been saying all throughout day one. By the end of the inspection they concluded that I did in fact know the issues of the school and I could be trusted to implement improvements. Was it frustrating to have them write areas to develop that were identical to the ones I had identified on my school development plan and school self-evaluation plan? Maybe.  Did they have to conduct day one with their ears blocked and eyes closed and unable to listen to my story? Maybe not. But, due to their uncompromising attitudes throughout that day they allowed me to see, for the first time, that I am leading a school community who trust me and want me to do my job to improve their school. They also made me realise that I am possibly, more attached to the school than anyone else and for that I suppose I should be grateful. So through slightly gritted teeth: ‘Thank you Ofsted.’

Ofsted the Destroyer! Ofsted the Bar-Raiser! Ofsted the Compassionate! Ofsted the Terrible! The Whole Damn Ofsted Dynasty!

There have been many different incarnations of the school’s inspection service in recent times, each one repeating the mantra that they are trying to raise the standards of education across the country but each one taking on the persona of a twisted member of your family.

An early framework resembled an inevitable visit from your weird distant Aunty at Christmas. They gave you weeks and weeks to get ready and then stayed with you longer than necessary leaving you a gibbering wreck at the end of their stay and unable to work out what life was like before they had crashed into your world.

Then they changed and decided to only give you a week’s notice whereupon they would turn up like a drunken Uncle: eating your staff room out of cake and biscuits and upsetting everyone in a staggeringly brief amount of time before pissing off to the next relative he hates.

Then Ofsted turned into your Mum who after her divorce had decided to read too many self-help books. This Ofsted preferred to listen and get you to come up with all the answers whereupon they would either nod and agree or look at you with a raised eyebrow until you said something else that they did agree with.

And then Ofsted became your scary psychopathic younger cousin: You would open the door to your office to find them sitting in your chair asking you how they had managed to get in. Unable to answer (because they had actually climbed through your window using a diamond cutter in the middle of the night), they would laugh manically and order you off the premises.

This current incarnation is like your strict Grandfather who insists on making you stronger through unfairness. ‘Whatcha wanna use oven gloves for boy? Use your bare hands, toughen that skin up.’ ‘Milk teeth is for girls and fairies, pull ‘em out boy’ ‘No Grandson of mine is gonna be satisfactory, you’re either good….or good for nothing.’

And like that Ofsted has decided that teachers and schools were getting it too easy with ‘satisfactory’. Too many staff rooms were full of smirking teachers revelling in their satisfactory-ness, willingly not being good, the lazy bastards! I mean those of you that have ever been told a lesson you did was satisfactory that will know ‘being satisfactory’ is only a slightly less soul destroying experience than having your entire friends and family look at your naked body and mark in red pen the bits that are repellent to all and sundry. It is not something anyone in education aspires to be.

Secretly I kind of don’t mind the ‘requires improvement’ judgement. It has in it the opportunity for constructive action and by not having statements that link with a satisfactory judgement it shows that it could be a bespoke set of prompts for the individual to zone in on. But Gove and Wilshaw don’t seem willing to present it that way; instead they favour the ‘stop moaning and get on with it’ approach. ‘If you’re crap get better or get out.’ ‘If you’re ok, you’re still quite close to crap so get on with it.’ ‘If you’re good, you’re only one step away from awful so get on with it.’ ‘You’re outstanding? Oh, would you like to be an academy?’ It’s almost as if they want to scare and demoralise teachers but surely they wouldn’t have got the job if that was the case?

So when I stop being @theprimaryhead and become @theofstedinspector what member of your family would I represent? I would be like your new foster parent. I am genuinely interested in recognising how good you are and in finding out how you would like to get better. I would let you know I was coming and I would meet you before I visited for a good old chat: and together we would devise a timetable. Obviously, there are some ground rules: I’ve got to check the quality of planning, teaching, marking and assessing and check the children and parents are happy…but you know that. Then I would come and stay for a week, maybe two. I wouldn’t leave until I felt I had a really good grasp of your school and where you were taking it. Then I would leave but not without agreeing on a return date so I could check on how you’re doing. If I gave you a ‘requires improvement’ judgement I would make sure I supported you in working out how to improve effectively. Why? Because you’re part of my family now and I care.