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Education books: Addressing the squeezed middle

09 June 2023

Dennis Richards reviews a pick of the latest education titles

THE recent arrival of not one, but two, publications tackling middle leadership in schools is a noteworthy moment. The authors of the superbly researched Doing Middle Leadership Right make their case in nine words from the very start: “Middle leaders are the engine room of every school.”

That view comes in stark contrast to the far more usual perception that the school’s senior leadership team (SLT) is almost entirely responsible for framing the vision, values, and strategic planning for the school. Not so, the writers here say.

Middle leaders are still widely known as heads of department (or subject leaders), whereas pastoral or well-being or behavioural posts are most often described as heads of year. The main theme running throughout the book focuses on the relationship between the middle leader and a team of classroom teachers. Balance is the key: high effectiveness as a leader, balanced with high humanity in approach.

All three authors have experience as middle leaders and are, therefore, able to make frequent and effective use of particularly appropriate case studies. The chapter on “Difficult conversations”, for example, is grist to the mill for all middle leaders: wanting to be honest about a lesson observation and, at the same time, wanting to be kind. Most of us, they say, will err on the kind side. After all, we work with these colleagues daily — we may even socialise with them. We want them to like us.

“Ruinous empathy” is how the authors describe it. The same balance is essential when it comes to the chapter on quality assurance: accountability with humanity.

The authors suggest that a radical way of improving the process would be to remove grading of lessons altogether. Given the appalling recent consequences of Ofsted grading, it now looks like a remarkably prescient conclusion. The thorny issue of flexible working is tackled head on, as is teaching the most able: “Unapologetically ambitious, unashamedly academic.” The SLT will love that.

I can honestly say that I wish somebody could have handed me a text like Middle Leadership in Education as I took up a middle-leadership post for the first time. It is particularly appropriate for middle leaders in church schools. “Middle leadership”, Julian Stern says, “is very different. I don’t think I have ever met a middle leader . . . who is tempted by the vanity of the position.” Not like headship, he means. Ouch.

Most refreshing of all, it is highly readable, and describes the difficult tightrope that a middle leader has to walk. Writing in avowedly Christian terms, the author suggests that middle leaders should see themselves as “stewards of students, the curriculum, and their dept/year colleagues”. There is much job satisfaction and, indeed, “joy” to be had in the job.

Complementing the previous volume, this book has more emphasis on the part played by the middle leader in terms of discipleship “upwards” with respect to the senior leadership team (SLT).

Implementing school policy is the nub of the issue for all middle leaders. What happens for a middle leader when you feel that the best interests of your students and your staff seem to clash with the best interests of the school’s systems, as laid down by the SLT? It most often occurs in relation to school behavioural systems.

Most pertinent of all is Stern’s conclusion that middle leadership is a job in its own right, not simply a preparation for senior leadership. Apologies, therefore, are in order from all senior leaders across the land who may have persuaded middle leaders into SLT roles under the guise of “professional development”.

Eagle-eyed readers will note that the cost-of-living crisis has finally hit Grove Books. But they are still only £4.95, and still a bargain for an exceptional piece of work.

Talking to Children About Mental Health, helpfully subtitled The unique challenges facing Gen Z and Gen Alpha and how you can help, this user-friendly guide examines the mental-health problems afflicting so many children and young teenagers in 2023.

The author goes out of her way to save older readers any embarrassment. I have learned, therefore, that Gen Z refers — in broad terms — to children born between 1995 and 2009. Gen Alpha are children born after 2009.

Signs that social-media addiction among young children and teenagers was rapidly becoming a problem for parents were already there when it was dramatically exacerbated by the pandemic. There are astonishing and frightening instances described in the book: toddlers looking out of the window, becoming quickly bored with what they are seeing, and swiping the window as if it were an iPad or mobile-phone screen, in a futile attempt to change the scene.

Kate Winslet’s powerful and emotional speech as she accepted a BAFTA award recently for the TV drama I Am Ruth can leave no one in any doubt that modern technology has irrevocably changed our children’s growing-up environment.

The book comes from an unusual source. Lily-Jo is a successful singer-songwriter with her own powerful backstory (Interview, 26 May). A qualified and experienced counsellor, she has found more and more young people identifying with her songs and desperate for a listening ear. The Lily-Jo Project offers online resources addressing loneliness, anxiety, fear of climate change, sexuality confusion, post-pandemic stress disorder, and depression.

And then there is a powerful chapter on “Global grief”: George Floyd, Sarah Everard, the ghastly images emerging from Ukraine, and frequent mass shootings in schools and restaurants. We can become inured to it, but what about children and the impact on their psychological development? This volume could not be more timely.

Prayers for Schools is a valuable resource aimed at schools where the daily act of “broadly Christian” collective worship is taken seriously. A prayer for the day, covering a vast array of topics, will remove the anxiety — and, at times, unease — that many teachers feel about praying in public. This is invaluable.


Doing Middle Leadership Right
L. Bawden, J.Hickin, K. Macis-Riley
Routledge £18.99


Middle Leadership in Education
Julian Stern
Grove Books £4.95


Talking to Children About Mental Health
SPCK £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.89


Prayers for Schools
Jamie Prouse
Verite CM £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.79

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