Head to Head

AHDS Middle Leadership

As a teacher, I have always been interested in leadership; the different styles, the impact leaders make, and the journey taken to get there. As a class teacher I wanted to take steps to increase my knowledge and skill in leadership, so I took part in Education Scotland’s ‘Teacher Leadership Programme’, Dumfries and Galloway’s ‘Introduction to School Leadership’ programme and then signed up to complete a Masters in Enhanced Practice in Education, studying part time over three years at The School of Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Glasgow. Eight years into my career, whilst continuing to study for a Masters, I moved into my current middle leadership post as Principal Teacher (PT) in a small, rural school in Dumfries and Galloway.  In my opinion, middle leadership gives the best of both worlds – retaining class commitment and the joy that comes with being a class teacher, as well as the opportunity to take on a leadership remit and having a platform to make further positive contributions to the pupils, school and community.

Making the decision on what topic to research for my Masters dissertation was relatively easy, as my main interest is in middle leadership and the challenges and opportunities that exist within it. Educational leadership has been the focus of research for a significant period of time; however, middle leadership has been less of a focus, particularly within the context of Scottish primary education.  

The questions I set out to answer were as follows:

  • How has the middle leadership role in Scottish primary education developed over the past 20 years and what does it look like currently?
  • What career opportunities currently exist for middle leaders in Scottish primary education and what challenges are faced?
  • What does the future of the middle leadership role look like in Scottish primary education?

Due to the short timescale, and the restrictions of Covid-19, this research took the form of an investigative desk-based study. I used documentary analysis to analyse policies, reports, and other relevant publications, in addition to the thematic analysis of secondary survey data in the form of the Teacher Workforce Planning for Scotland’s Schools surveys, 2017.  

To begin to explore these questions, I researched the history of middle leadership in Scottish primary schools and the influence of various government reviews and policy. From the McCrone report in 2000, to the Independent Panel on Career Pathways for Teachers (IPCPT) report in 2019, middle leadership in Scottish schools has changed from being non-existent to being a more prominent feature.  The PT role, the only current middle leadership role in Scottish primary schools, was introduced after the agreement from the McCrone report but it was identified by McCormac (2011) that the number of PTs within and across local authorities differed considerably, and that there continued to be a lack of opportunities for promotion into middle leadership roles. McCormac’s recommendation that headteachers should be given more flexibility in relation to their school structure, meant that both the number of PT posts and the role of PTs continued to be inconsistent between schools.

Within key Scottish educational documents over the past 20 years, middle leadership has been given little consideration, with the terms being used inconsistently. In 2007, the focus changed from leadership in a sense of promoted posts, to the idea of distributed leadership, encouraging leadership at all levels. This continued to blur the boundary between class teachers and middle leaders. The 2007 HMIE Leadership of Learning document also signified a change to small school leadership structures, with some headteachers now being responsible for two or more schools.  This began to alter the role of the PT in small schools, to being more like that of a depute headteacher.  

The only document that has set out to make some significant changes to middle leadership is the IPCPT (2019) report, which recommends that the government implements the role of a Lead Teacher and provides a clearer progression pathway for teachers.  However, at present, the promotion structure remains unchanged, with the PT role still being the only middle leadership post in Scottish primary education.

Career Opportunities

From my analysis of the survey data, PTs currently in post highlighted that the role provides variety of challenge and that they enjoy making a positive impact on children’s lives. At present, programmes facilitated by Education Scotland are available for aspiring middle leaders and middle leaders who are already in post, demonstrating that professional learning and support is now available for middle leaders. These programmes are free, however, having the time to focus on these programmes can be difficult, especially when funding for time out of school is evermore rare. These courses aim to provide professional learning around the topic of middle leadership.


As I looked towards the challenges of the role in more detail, I found that there was:

  • A lack of career structure, with the only opportunity for promotion being straight into management. There was a desire for something like the previous Chartered Teacher programme, where class commitment is retained, and opportunities are available for part time teachers.
  • Continued inconsistency with PT numbers, with some primary schools not having a PT.
  • Ongoing tension in relation to the work/life balance of middle leaders.
  • A concern that the role of a middle leader could often morph into that of a depute headteacher, particularly in schools that are part of a multi-school headship.
  • A concern that due to the lack of supply teachers available, middle leaders’ time is often spent covering absences, rather than leading learning and improvements.

The Future

Developing the middle leadership role in Scottish primary schools would not only improve career pathways for teachers, but it has the potential to benefit the education of children. It is recognised by authors like Andy Buck, as well as many others, that effective leadership is the second most important factor in improving outcomes for children, with effective teaching and learning being the first. The IPCPT report has exciting prospects relating to middle leadership, which could solve some of the current challenges. The recommendations from this report that, if implemented, will have the most impact on middle leadership are the introduction of a lead teacher role, opportunities for teachers to progress incrementally and laterally, and support for career development. These recommendations are likely to have been put on hold due to Covid-19, however, as policy developments and debate will no doubt continue to take place, the following points strike me as important priorities to take forward:

  • Middle leadership needs to be given a focus within Scottish educational policy, to recognise the value of the role.
  • A clear progression pathway for teachers should be developed, with opportunities for promotion to middle leadership that do not involve management, as well as opportunities for part-time teachers which are underpinned by appropriate development and training opportunities.
  • The job sizing process should be reviewed to consider the different roles of a PT, with comparisons being made within and across local authorities to allow consistency in remits and pay.
  • More focus should be put on the fact that the role of a PT and a depute headteacher are distinct, so responsibilities and remits should not become blurred in practice.
  • Middle leaders should continue to have a teaching commitment but should be given the appropriate time out of class to fulfil their middle leader remit, to ensure an appropriate work/life balance can be maintained.

Middle leadership has the potential to be a privileged, sought after role, but it is a role which needs to be acknowledged and valued to ensure it can function at its greatest capacity in Scottish primary education and ultimately, improve outcomes for children and young people.  

With thanks to my supervisor, Stephen Scholes from the University of Glasgow, for his knowledge and support.