The Engine Room of Schools


Middle leaders have on more than one occasion been described as ‘the engine room of the school’. If we take this at face value, the analogy suggests a school simply couldn’t function without its middle leaders just as an ocean liner couldn’t sail without its engine. Therefore, it seems wise to consider what some of the features of successful middle management may be. After considering some of my own practice and what I’ve seen in the schools I’ve worked at or visited, I’ve condensed my thoughts into the following list.

1. To raise standards

A lot of jargon is spoken and reams of data generated, but I think there are a couple of good starting points for success. Middle leaders should be up-to-date with the latest guidance and try to ensure their staff are too. Middle leaders should ensure staff have access to high-quality continuing professional development that’s useful and, preferably, chosen by the staff themselves. A team that’s informed and educated in its own subject is (arguably) the key to higher standards of pupil work.

2. Observing teachers and quality assurance

These are closely linked to the above. Middle leaders should ensure the observation and scrutiny process is as non-threatening as possible. Feedback and advice given should be genuinely constructive. This can be achieved by ensuring positive features are highlighted, shared and built upon, and areas for improvement are discussed. Individual teaching styles, lesson planning and structure should be at the teacher’s discretion. I hope it goes without saying there should be no grading of individual lessons.

3. Building strong teams

A good middle leader will know where the strengths and weaknesses lie in their team. In addition to offering opportunities for training and feedback, middle leaders should encourage sharing of skills between their own team of teachers. While valuing and promoting teacher autonomy, opportunities to see each other teach and share ideas and good practice should be given. Teachers should be offered the chance to plan together and team teach. Where appropriate, middle leaders should seek to involve and engage staff in the department decision-making process.

4. Behaviour

A good middle leader can be crucial in ensuring consistency of behaviour management across their department. Middle leaders should help staff to enforce school discipline policy while never undermining individual teachers. They should be prepared to chase up detentions and generally back staff in any way needed. It’s wise not to underestimate the importance of strong behaviour management in the overall success of a department.

5. The middle (wo)man

As a buffer between senior leadership and teaching staff, middle leaders are on the receiving end of an awful lot of information. However, they should be careful not to throw all the stress down the line. A good middle leader will know there are some tasks which should be undertaken by them and some information which should be held back. Teaching staff shouldn’t be given unnecessary tasks to complete or paperwork to trawl through. In addition to this, I would urge middle leaders to think very carefully before implementing any new scheme or incentive – especially if costly. Consider foremost, if it’s really as good as it first seems? And (crucially) will it raise standards?

An engine room, by definition, exists behind a closed door. It’s isolated from the rest of the ship. It’s here where this post must diverge from the engine room analogy. Middle leaders must be visible to both pupils and staff; they should be seen in corridors, greet people, smile and say hello. Middle leaders should enquire how people are (and genuinely care about the response). They should certainly not exist behind a closed door, but instead offer an open-door policy where they welcome everyday news and chit-chat as well as the inevitable crises and bad news.

Finally, middle leaders should have a teaching commitment. Even the smoothest, slickest of engines can be prone to rust, after all.

This blog was written for the NAHT Edge website

This list is far from exhaustive, please add your comments below, or contact me on Twitter.

Please follow me on Twitter: @cazzypot

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9 Responses to The Engine Room of Schools

  1. Slightly off topic but I think middle leaders would benefit a great deal if they were encouraged and given the time to become governors in other schools. This would take them out of the “closed engine room” and would be great CPD for them. It could help them bring new practices back to their own school.


  2. cherrylkd says:

    I know it isn’t always possible, but it would be good if ML could be seconded to SLT for a term each to further develop their skills. Also, this keeps SLT thinking about the teachers in the classroom and how their decisions impact on them.
    Great post!


  3. @ImSporticus says:

    I found my move into middle leadership was well supported. I was ‘buddies up’ with a more experienced colleague. It was an informal relationship which I could choose to call on when and where I needed. Having someone’s wisdom and advice about the role helped me greatly, as no is ever ready to take on a new role with responsibility. I’d also love to have time to do No. 2 regularly. Being able to spend more time supporting my department on their teaching is an area of the role I think I could improve.


  4. jillberry102 says:

    Really enjoyed this! I’m doing a lot of work with Middle Leaders at the moment, It seems as though schools are (at last) waking up to the fact that MLs have a crucial role to play in a) improving the quality of teaching and learning, and b) positively impacting on staff morale.

    Would love to cite this blog and recommend the Middle Leaders I work with follow you, if that’s OK?


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