MIDDLE LEADERSHIP IN SCHOOLS: A WICKED PROBLEM?

INTRODUCTION

One of the contradictions in education is between measurable performance and pedagogical performance. Government dictates that education is not just about transferring knowledge, the Department for Education uses one indicator for academic performance (UK Government and DfE, 2016, p. 7). Bennet et al (2007) identify a trade-off between collegiality and professional development for the role of middle manager in secondary schools. This and other problems will be analysed as “wicked” problems (Rittel and Webber, 1973). It is important to keep in mind that Bennet et al generalise in their analysis; the approach of a maths subject leader might be very different than the head of department of modern foreign languages’. In some organisations departments are inward-looking and run the department as a separate school (Torrington and Weightman, 1989, p. 525). Terms to identify a middle leader/manager will be used interchangeably. First the problem will be analysed and academic sources will be consulted to find more evidence of the problem identified by Bennet et al. Questions about the position and responsibility of middle managers will be raised to identify what role they have in the overall performance in schools. Secondly there will be an analysis of this problem as “wicked” considering that there might be a technical solution and parts of this problem might be “tame” and have a technical solution. What are the implications for schools and education if the role of a middle manager is indeed (partly) “wicked”?

THE MIDDLE MANAGER’S PROBLEM

Bennet et al (2007) identify a couple of mayor issues with the role of the middle leader. According to the authors middle leaders are stuck in the middle between being a ‘normal’ teacher with some extra tasks and a formal leader within the school. It is clear that a head of year or member of senior management team (SMT) have authority over other employees in the organisation. The middle manager does not appear to have this sort of formal authority, as discussed by Wettersten (1994). The role of middle manager is then glorified administrator whose tasks are ambiguous and not formally determined, Wettersten concludes that these leaders achieve great result by mainly relating to others as colleagues. She gives some pointers to effective leadership in this role, but we wont go further into that. Bennet et al point out that this role of middle manager sometimes looks like that of a line manager. If the role is that of a line manager, it is unclear how this works alongside a head of year in terms of performance evaluation and HRM. For both teachers and leaders within the school this may be the cause of a lot of uncertainty and even conflict. In essence the problem is that of a matrix organisation.

A matrix organisation is complex and difficult to work with, it causes complexity and ambiguity for different managers (Davis and Lawrence, 1979, p. 131,132). On top of this uncertainty there is a problem with finance, as Davis and Lawrence point out matrix leadership could lead to excessive overhead (1979, p. 137). Who is the responsible line manager for any given teacher in the organisation? Figure 1 is a simple illustration; imagine an English teacher teaching most under head 1 (head of year 8). Line management may be equivocal as a concept let alone having a set person to report to. Supposedly this can depend on the nature of reporting, perhaps academic to head of department and professional to head of year. This can cause a lot of problems if an employee wants to pick and choose its leader or tries to evade reporting, it creates mazes to escape the system. In some schools in the Netherlands extra layers were introducing by starting to work in teams (Luin et al., 2007, p. 14). This is a very good form to get to grips with the pedagogical side of teaching, when teachers in a team work with mainly the same students it is easier to build in consistency and share experience about student behaviour. This makes secondary school feel a bit more like primary school than other schools (Siskin, 1991, p. 136), which is especially helpful for students with special educational needs. However, sometimes the team leader layer is wedged in between the SMT and teachers, therefor experience the same issues as heads of department/year.

Another issue can arise, as there can be a juggle for power between head of department and head of year. Line management can be left in the middle if managers do not want to deal with difficult issues or underperforming employees (avoid confrontation). A manager can also overstep boundaries the other way and do more than is required. So natural leaders may cross boundaries and start to take on the role of line manager when the organisation dictates this is not their role. This is a very real problem as some people mangers be power hungry or over-zealous, please note that this could be either way, a head of year could involve themselves to much with subject specific issues and vice versa.

Middle managers can find themselves in a very difficult position between the role as leader and as a colleague. If the organisation decides that the process of assessment and professional development is one that belongs to the middle manager they are at risk of damaging relationships with colleagues (or at least that might be the assumption). When teachers within a department indeed need a high level of collegiality, having a leader in their midst that is responsible for observations and assessment might be tricky. There may be resistance to management in general as the teacher already experiences a large workload (Galton and Macbeath, 2008, p. 7) accompanied by stress and not surprisingly burn-out symptoms. As Galton and Macbeath write, there is an amazingly high turnover in teachers. In 2015 this turnover is still 10.6% (“NUT,” n.d.), a very real problem that leadership in education has to consider. Galton and Macbeath seem to subscribe this to the increase in accountability and bureaucracy. As a subject leader it is difficult to raise the issue of continuous professional development (CPD) as the resistance to more activities and bureaucracy is high.

To achieve the best results possible the teacher is already marking in the evening, filling in student evaluation reports on the weekend etc. When the head of department, or head of year for that matter, comes up with a new idea to do collegial consultations and create a 360-degree feedback cycle, a high level of resistance can be expected, not necessarily because of the nature of this idea but more due to the extra workload. The combination of extreme workload, increased student misbehaviour and extreme involvement of stakeholders in delivery of the curriculum makes the teaching profession difficult, if not impossible. Harris suggests that focussing on extra activities might actually not be very helpful (2002, p. 8), heads of struggling schools turn the focus back on the classroom and teachers appreciate this, also this seems to be a factor in turning the performance around.

The role of middle manager has changed in the modern age and more leadership is demanded. In a study of school facing difficulties the successful head teachers delegate more leadership and this includes the middle manager (Harris, 2002, p. 7). It has to be noted that in this section of the Harris research the main topic is leadership. If the middle manager considers the role to be that of a cupboard manager this will not be effective leadership. This sort of leadership is not just Aristotle’s techné and episteme (know how and know why) but rather more like phronesis (Grint, 2007). The manager has to lead, which means using wisdom to stand up for colleagues against senior management or parents when needed or encourage teachers to find ways of improving performance. It depends on what the situation and colleague needs. This makes it all the more difficult to step into these roles, one thing becomes apparent in Harris’s research is that autocratic leadership does not work, head teachers confirm this while reflecting on the pre-inspection period.

A WICKED PROBLEM

Let us start by identifying the difference in leadership expectation between head of department (the middle management) and head of year. For clarity purposes the type of leadership expected from the head of department is mainly technical (techné) and focuses on the curriculum and content. A head of year on the other hand is expected to lead more in terms of safeguarding and pedagogical environment, which can be episteme leadership as it is more of an intellectual endeavour. Both of these on their turn can use wisdom (phronesis) in making decisions involving teachers and their practises.
Example:

Teacher x has trouble achieving the grades that are required considering the students potential. The teacher has many reasons for this; the students are misbehaving, the marking takes longer than expected and two out of three lessons are on the Friday afternoon. Teacher x has three years of experience and shows high levels of insecurity about professional performance.

This teacher could be working in any school in the world and every teacher has probably seen or is working with a colleague in this position. Lets say that quality control is a role of the middle manager (head of department), professional development and organisation is in the hands of an assigned head of year. This situation could leave teacher x stuck in the middle, both leaders may assume that the other will take the colleague under their wings. If the head of year takes on the challenge the curriculum development and technical side may be an issue as this person may not be a subject expert. If the responsibility of HRM is in the hands of the head of department another problem occurs. As the pedagogical side is in the hands of heads of year, it can be difficult to negotiate structural classroom problems. Can the head of department stand in between parents/students and teacher in this case? Maybe this position does not hold this kind of authority.

To give some context and structure to the rest of this paper ten rules for identifying a wicked problem will be used to explore the role of middle managers in schools. The following are all copied from and based on Rittel and Webber (1973, pp. 161–167).
1. No definitive formulation of a wicked problem
2. Wicked problems are possibly infinite
3. Solutions are good or bad, not true or false
4. Solutions outcomes are not testable/quantifiable
5. Solutions cannot be replicated
6. Solutions are potentially infinite
7. Every wicked problem is unique
8. A wicked problem is a symptom of another problem
9. Solutions depend on the subjectivity of the problem design
10. Hypothesis cannot be tested

The problem we are looking at is actually a set of problems and combination of different factors1. It is not possible to narrow it down to one problem, as it is a general problem of leadership in education. Maybe these problems are applicable to more not for profit institutions in the public domain. There is no profit incentive or bonus structure, however the role of external stakeholders is much more significant. So if we had to describe the problem it would be in the direction of an agency/allegiance issue.

The scale of possible micro problems is infinite as it is a matter of trade-offs2. The only thing an organisation or individual can do is identify the trade-off and choose the least worst option. In our problem proposition these trade-offs can be; collegiality vs. performance, students vs. teachers, parents vs. teachers, please SMT vs. please colleagues etc. The job description may be skewed as it may be considered to subjective and different every time. The position or performance of a department may dictate a different set of responsibilities in combination with different leaders in the organisation.

Is it good or bad to choose the side of teachers in arguments and conflicts? The answer to a question like this depends on a lot of different factors3. If the conflict is with a member of the senior management team (SMT) some might argue that a strong leader stands up for the follower, however this may not be helpful in terms of organisational politics. What is good or bad? The answer is anything but true or false as it is subjective and cannot be replicated.

How can we test whether the chosen option or solution is a good one? Is the outcome better or worse than the alternative choice? We cannot state with certainty what the effect of these decisions by middle management is4. It is also subject to external factors as complementary leadership from head of department and members of the SMT. A middle manager may decide to not participate in negotiating between followers and other parties; sometimes they will not even try and mend broken relationships within the department. The solutions or potential options are infinite6; this all depends on the job description and job perception of the middle manager. If circumstances in schools change the middle manager is particularly vulnerable to struggling with this change. In some organisations they may not even be considered to be a proper management layer. Every organisation is unique7 in positioning the role of middle manager in charge of a subject area. Interestingly the job description of every vacancy in middle management states the exact same roles.

In general a school’s success is largely influence by the quality of leadership (whatever ‘good’ leadership may be) (Bennett et al., 2007). Bennet et al identify that changes in leadership style have positive effects. This is confirmed by both head teachers and teachers, this makes the importance of leadership by middle management apparent and therefor all the more difficult. Can the subject’s performance be subscribed to the quality of middle manager as leadership has a large effect on school performance? Or is the style of leadership by the SMT more important and the ability to lead by the middle manager subject to that?

We have focussed on the problem of formal authority and unique situation that middle managers find themselves in as a ‘leader amongst equals’. The solutions therefor depend on this framework9. The approach of transactional vs. transformational leadership required of educational leaders (Wettersten, 1994) dictates different considerations. Hypothesis in this matter cannot be tested, as there are no closed environments where circumstances are the same.

LEADERSHIP

Early research into management in secondary schools tells us that in the mid 1980’s morale amongst teachers started to drop and the managerial approach to institutes like schools is not helpful (Torrington and Weightman, 1989, p. 522). The nature of teaching is working together and very much about creating community. When managerial tools are applied the workforce might get dispersed and demotivated by the increase of ‘corporatism’. Harris et al (1995, p. 297) identify a number of features that are responsible for effective departmental leadership. The main theme seems to be more transactional and organisational than transformational. Teachers are reasonably self-sufficient and take responsibility for their own work. Good systems and clear organisation are important conditions to running a ‘effective’ department in a school. There is a high level of collegiality in successful departments, this confirms earlier hypothesis.

When looking at leadership the size and position of a department is important. The head of department of English has greater influence and impact than head of ICT for example. Departments like English and Maths have some implications for other departments as well. When the Maths department uses specific methods to solve equations that may have consequences for science and economics in the way they have to adopt these methods. When we consider the head of department a leading professional (Brown and Rutherford, 1998) it is very impressive to consider the amount sometimes is expected of them. Brown and Rutherford find that 80% is spend on teaching and 20% on leading. Interestingly they make no distinction in terms of size of the department, undifferentiated expectations may be one of the issues heads of department struggle with. Leadership of the arts department surely is different from that of the English department. This idea is enforced by Siskin (1991) where a study identifies very different cultures in departments. In most schools the differences are not as extreme as in this case study, but any difference is worth considering. A head of department has a great impact on organisation and even culture within the department.

According to Roberts (2000, p. 3) the coping strategy for the middle leader should be collaborative. The power is dispersed but not contested in this case. We make the assumption that the role of subject leader is mainly about choosing between different opinions in the department and/or school. So middle managers should try and consult different stakeholders in making decisions.

CONCLUSIONS

The most important conclusion is that there is no correct way of designing middle leadership as a concept. It is a role that cannot be replicated or copied; this might be true for every management position in corporate and public domain. Usually management roles are indeed standardized across organisations or industries. This puts the middle leader in a difficult position as circumstances, vision or legislation change. A middle leader’s role may change with these changing factors, however this is not always identified. One thing that the middle leader should consider is that decisions must be made in the ‘best’ way possible. It may be a choice of two or more evils, but the choice must be made. If a middle leader chooses to approach colleagues without incurring any conflict and create a positive culture this should be done with intend and reasoning. If these decisions are not made managers are in danger of developing Prozac leadership (Collinson, 2012) by being extremely positive and avoid confrontation. How difficult it may seem is not important, by definition a manager is in the business of making decisions. The best evil option is better than leaving it in the middle. The role of middle leadership does not always carry the characteristics of a wicked problem. It depends on how it is approached by the organisation. It is important to remember that this role has significantly changed over the last few decades. This role has changed from administrator to leader, it is up to the SMT to identify this and look whether the current managers are suitable, need training or need to be replaced. In a matrix organisation it is very important to design and separate tasks and responsibilities. In essence it does not matter who is responsible for what, but the most important thing is that of clarity, nothing and no one should be left in the middle.

Looking forward in time more research could be done into the role of the middle manager. However, before that happens school SMT’s should ask whether the current facilities are appropriate for this role. Are these roles the same if the departments have very different sizes? Are middle managers a victim of the matrix organisations? The effect of these roles has been researched at the end of the last century, when the curricula started to change. Academics could take a more critical approach when this is considered a wicked problem.

REFERENCES

Bennett, N., Woods, P., Wise, C., Newton, W., 2007. Understandings of middle leadership in secondary schools: a review of empirical research. School Leadership & Management 27, 453–470. doi:10.1080/13632430701606137
Brown, M., Rutherford, D., 1998. Changing Roles and Raising Standards: New challenges for heads of department. School Leadership & Management 18, 75–88. doi:10.1080/13632439869781
Collinson, D., 2012. Prozac leadership and the limits of positive thinking. Sage publication 8, 87–107. doi:10.1177/1742715011434738
Davis, S., Lawrence, P., 1979. Problems of matrix organizations. Matrix organization and project management 134–51.
Galton, M.J., Macbeath, J., 2008. Teachers under pressure. SAGE Publications Ltd.
Grint, K., 2007. Learning to Lead: Can Aristotle Help Us Find the Road to Wisdom? Sage publication 3, 231–246. doi:10.1177/1742715007076215
Harris, A., 2002. Effective leadership in schools facing challenging contexts. School Leadership & Management 22, 15–26.
Harris, A., Jamieson, I., Russ, J., 1995. A study of “effective”departments in secondary schools. School organisation 15, 283–299.
Luin, G. van, Dekker, D., Duursma, M., 2007. Werken in teams – vrangenlijst voor teamontwikkeling in het VO.
National Union of Teachers | NUT | The Teachers’ Union [WWW Document], n.d. URL https://www.teachers.org.uk/edufacts/teacher-recruitment-and-retention (accessed 3.22.17).
Rittel, H.W., Webber, M.M., 1973. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences 4, 155–169.
Roberts, N., 2000. Wicked problems and network approaches to resolution. International public management review 1, 1–19.
Siskin, L.S., 1991. Departments as Different Worlds: Subject subcultures in secondary schools. Educational Administration Quarterly 27, 134–160.
Torrington, D., Weightman, J., 1989. The Management of secondary schools. Journal of Management Studies 26, 519–530.
UK Government, DfE, 2016. Department for Education Consolidated annual report and accounts for the year ended 31 March 2016.
Wettersten, J.A., 1994. Low Profile, High Impact: Four Case Studies of High School Department Chairs Whose Transactions “Transform” Teachers and Administrators. Presented at the Annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA.

Paul has experience in education, is becoming a qualified coach and has a strong interest in making activities fit for purpose. The challenge ahead is to make processes and procedures work in or advantage.

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