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James has spent 11 of the last 13 years teaching Secondary English and has held a number of middle leadership roles, including leading two successful English departments. As Director of English and Assistant Headteacher at Moor End Academy, Huddersfield, Ofsted recognised his and his amazing team's work in their 'Excellence in English' report of May, 2011.
In 2012, he became a Specialist Leader of Education and has supported a number of schools in developing English leadership, curriculum, teaching and assessment. He has also delivered a number of professional development courses for ASCL on how to be an outstanding head of English, leading intervention and developing a whole-school approach to Literacy.
At the end of 2014, he left full-time teaching to become a full-time dad, but continues to work as an educational consultant and writer. He lives in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, with his wife, Louise, and their three beautiful children.
The New Middle Leader's Handbook is the definitive go-to guide for all educators looking to take the leap into middle leadership, those wanting to become better middle leaders, or senior leaders seeking an authoritative manual for their school's middle leadership.
Innovatively organised into chapters around the school year, taking readers from August to July and covering the full range of problems, challenges and opportunities they face in one of the most important roles in the school, and providing them with a framework to strategically plan and shape their year. Readers can use the book to structure their work into manageable portions while tailoring its content to their own personal school context, and its many activities and resources will provide opportunities for reflection, analysis and creative thinking.
Operating as a practical manual and designed for easy reference, the book proposes methods, systems and procedures for: developing a personal leadership style; managing and driving dynamic change; building a successful team and challenging resistance; challenging underperformance of staff and students; using performance management to drive improvement; monitoring the quality of teaching and learning; tracking and measuring progress; preparing for inspection or internal review, including the self-evaluation process; organising meetings and leading professional development, including the use of the coaching model; prioritising workload and maintaining a work/life balance; developing a strategic learning and development plan; creating a culture of positive behaviour, aspiration and high expectations; innovating in teaching and learning; and designing a creative curriculum and curriculum enrichment.
In addition, the book will guide those wishing to step up to middle leadership through the application and interview process, providing common-sense advice on the experience and skills required to become a successful middle leader. At its core, the book will be a source of stability for middle leaders that helps them to establish working principles that transcend changes to examinations, inspection criteria or DfE guidance.
It offers inspiration and enables a reflective approach to the role. The book is comprehensive and knowledgeable, but crucially, accessible, written in a style that will eschew overly academic theorising, trendy soundbites or patronising waffle. In its final chapters, it looks beyond the first year to provide guidance on long-term strategic planning, career development and bridging the gap between middle and senior leadership.
We are available for consultancy or staff training upon request.
* Bespoke support for English departments
* Bespoke support for NQTs and underperforming teachers
* English curriculum development and long term planning
* Quality assurance of departments
* Middle leadership reviews
* Middle leader training
* Whole staff literacy training
* English KS3/4 intervention
Bespoke consultancy packages to suit your school and teaching staff can also be arranged.
Please click here for contact details.
"This is without question the best single volume on middle leadership in schools. There can be no doubt that if you commit to working though this book, packed with a lifetime of experience and anecdote, you will accelerate your career path (if this is part of your plan), as well as gain insight into your own life journey, as this book helps to clarify thinking about personal motivation on the path to being an authentic human being and leader."
Guy Holloway, Headmaster, Hampton Court House
"James and Caroline have left no stone unturned in this comprehensive and insightful handbook: a must-read not only for all middle leaders, but for Headteachers too. Written in a convivial, easy-to-read style, it is firmly rooted in professional experience and packed full of WISDOM (what I shall do on Monday)."
Andrew Hammond, Headteacher, Glemsford Primary Academy
'The Middle Leaders' Handbook is an essential source of guidance and reference for aspiring and recently appointed middle leaders. Drawing on their extensive experience the authors take the reader through a comprehensive analysis of these roles offering helpful hints and advice coupled with a set of thought provoking tasks and self-evaluation tools.
Brian Lightman, former general secretary of ASCL
"A real and practical roadmap for the aspiring or new HoD. No excuses not to read it an inspirational chapter per month will work for even the most hardpressed HoD!"
Dr Helen Wright, former president of the Girls' Schools Association, former Head of St Mary's Calne
"In schools, we need positive voices, and people who see the positive, like James and Caroline. They have written this book to say, "This is what leadership actually looks like in your context, for a person just like you." here is a map, a compass, and a TripAdvisor piece of advice for each stop on the way. Just thinking about their clear structures and behaviours will make you a much better leader, even if in some instances you will choose to disagree (because we are all playing the game of "Who is Right"). But the great thing about this book is that your leadership will oftener be righter than wronger."
Dominic Salles, Assistant Principal, Chipping Campden School
Dominic Salles reviews The New Middle Leader’s Handbook, by James Ashmore and Caroline Clay. Published this week, the book is a definitive guide for educators both looking to take the leap into middle leadership, and for those already there.
Why you should read this book:
You will like Caroline and James, their different voices, and the fact that they have both been real heads of department.
We need positive voices, and people who see the positive, especially in schools where, you know, negativity bombs are launched seasonally by politicians, some parents, several students and the odd teacher.
Leadership is written about very vaguely. My favourite leadership books are American, written by sports coaches, (John Wooden and Bill Walsh) whose lessons are hard to apply in English schools. English books are even more difficult to apply, and amount to pretty much asking, “What would Jesus do in this situation?” or, heaven forbid, “What would Ofsted do in this situation?”; the former will seem to justify anything, and the latter is no help when Ofsted changes its collective mind every two years.
But James and Caroline have written this book to say, “This is what leadership actually looks like in your context, for a person just like you. Better than that, this is exactly, specifically what you should actually do, without generalisations. Yes, even better than that, this is when you should do it, in this month, in this sequence, to be reviewed at this time. Yes, yes, even, even better than that, this is how you might do it. Wait, don’t go away, even better, even better than that, here are some really useful thinking tools (ok, questions with a very thought through structure to them, in a table, with space for your answers – a tool, see) which will help you to decide how you are going to lead.
In other words, you want to find leadership. So here is a map, a compass, and a TripAdvisor piece of advice for each stop on the way.
Why you should care about leadership:
1. James says he became a leader “because I really, really didn’t want someone else to do it while I sat by, regretful, knowing I could’ve done things better.” That’s what motivated me, too, and turned me away from my Mr Chips style vocation of becoming a legend in my own school, wise, caring, entertaining being loved by one and all.
2. You should care because you sometimes (often?) look at leaders in schools and ask uncomfortable questions, which begin like this: “Really, are you really asking us to do X?” and occasionally develop into, “How can we follow you when you say things like Y, you used to be a human being.”
3. Part of the reason for this is weak leadership. But part of the reason will be a weak you – as Marshall Rosenberg says, “Instead of playing the game ”Making Life Wonderful”, we often play the game called ”Who’s Right”. Do you know that game? It’s a game where everybody loses.”
4. Caroline and James have set out a plan for the year in which you ask yourself if you are right once a month, with the attendant questions of, how do I know, and what do I do if I am wrong? Many leaders don’t do this, because they are not trying to make life wonderful. James and Caroline are.
5. In case you haven’t noticed, women are taking over the world. They are already paid more than men if they were born after 1985. They are taking over schools. But often they will be reluctant to lead. My wife (head teacher of TES school of the year 2015) observes that men seek leadership roles because they ignore their weaknesses and think they can do better, and women don’t seek leadership because they look at themselves and see so many weaknesses, ignoring their strengths. Appalled at this sexist view, I have nevertheless found this to be broadly true. If you are this stereotypical woman, this book will help you see your strengths for what they are. If you are this stereotypical man, you will find out what is worth getting better at in this book.
6. Incidentally, I did a three year value added analysis of GCSE progress of students coming in on levels 3, 4 and 5, for every secondary school in the country, and ranked the top schools. The majority of the best schools for progress were led by women. Why? This book will make you think – is there a female style of leadership, are some ways of leading better than others, what should I improve at? (One answer in the book – get much better with lists). In other words, this book will help you think your way to becoming a better leader.
7. So, if one truth that dare not speak its name is that women often make better leaders, (this book does not claim that, that’s just me), it does deal with the problem of many women not putting themselves forward – it shows you the way to value your skills.
8. There is an even bigger truth that dare not speak its name, that is hinted at in this book: many SLTs are a bit weak, or, to borrow some honest language from the book, “a bit crap”.
Why leadership is misunderstood in schools
1. How big a team do you have to lead in order to learn to be a leader? If you lead a team of three, one of whom is not very good, many will view that as not your fault. It’s a bad apple. You are only slightly accountable for them – you do your best, but well, pigs ear, silk purse. That’s life. But if you lead a team of twelve, and four of them are a bit rubbish, (exactly the same proportion) well that’s not a bad apple. That’s bad husbandry, bad planning, bad leadership, weak performance management, a poor ethos, lack of attention to detail, weak curriculum planning, ineffective monitoring, a lack of people skills, poor coaching…you get the picture, you are just rubbish. The odds of inheriting a team like that are exactly equal. Indeed, you can probably name departments where the ratio of really good to really not very good teachers is higher.
So, to be a success in a larger department is both harder and rarer. Conversely, the odds of leading a department where the three teachers are very good when you arrive are quite high, whereas the odds of coming into a department where all twelve are very good are pie in the sky.
Now, it is therefore comparatively easy for middle leaders of small department to feel they are doing a fantastic job of leading while doing very little leading at all. It is, in contrast, bloody difficult to lead a team of 12, and even more difficult to get it right with so many people. It is very easy to lead such a department well and yet feel a constant sense of failure. If you do manage it, all your leadership skills will have been developed and some will be superb. In other words, if your heads of English, Maths and Science are succeeding, it is because they are pretty damn good at leadership. If your heads of smaller departments are succeeding they may or may not be damn good at leadership, and they certainly won’t have had the gamut of experience that forces them to improve at their weaknesses.
In Darwinian terms, being a head of English, Maths and Science simply accelerates your evolution, whereas a smaller department can’t, no matter your original starting points, no matter how great your potential. But look around the SLTs you know – are they filled with successful heads of large departments, or smaller ones?
2. Hold that thought, because there is a bigger problem with leadership. At least if you lead a small department and one teacher is slightly rubbish, you are expected to have an effect on them. What if your leadership role is pastoral? Well, here you are only expected to ‘try’ to have an effect on them. Your leadership is basically about doing stuff, or putting interventions in place as we call it now, and much less about succeeding – after all, there are too many tutors, too many teachers, and certainly too many students for anyone to expect that your efforts have to And so a pastoral leader learns a lot about building great relationships, but very little about making a difference, i.e. improving the students as learners, improving the teachers as learners, improving the teaching of a team, balancing shrinking resources against improved results, etc. In other words, they simply don’t get better at improving progress. This isn’t their fault, it is just the Darwinian product of their environment. Now look at your SLT again. How many have come up through the pastoral route? How many have therefore, despite their personal qualities, not had experience of accountable leadership, leadership which has really made a difference to progress?
3. When looked at this way, it should come as no surprise to us that leadership is a bit pants. It’s because we keep selecting leaders who have had no real leadership experience. Worse than that, we don’t correct this, because we pretend that they do – they must be good, they’ve led a ‘team’, now they’re an Assistant or Deputy Head, they’ve been ‘leading’ for years.
4. Even worse than that, it is only once that person becomes a head teacher that they are fully accountable for a large team. It is no wonder they flounder in their first years, compensating by working too many hours, imposing too many systems, launching too many initiatives or building great relationships but not looking for impact of what really works. You will know if this describes your head because progress will not have improved.
Caroline and James don’t spell it out in these terms, because I think they are a bit nicer than I am (despite a swipe at Swindon, my hometown, and jewel of the M4).
However, they have both been heads of English, and their book will train you up so that you can think and behave like a head of a large department. They will change your environment – without them, you could be an ok leader, never having to consider half the things in their book, or many of the things that will actually make a difference to progress. In Darwinian terms, they have made it much easier for you to adapt and thrive. Buy this book.
Just thinking about their clear structures and behaviours will make you a much better leader, even if in some instances you will choose to disagree (because we are all playing the game of “Who is Right?”).
But the great thing about this book is that your leadership will oftener be righter than wronger.
"Ashmore and Clay offer the most comprehensive guide to Middle Level Leadership that I have ever seen. Taking the reader on a journey from early aspirations, through to the nuts and bolts of the job. All of the essentials for effective Middle Level Leadership are covered and clearly explained. Furthermore, the book teaches advanced management skills, whilst continuously promoting the individual style and vision of the leader. An enjoyable read and an essential guide for anyone wishing to make a success of this key role".
Mike Fairclough, Headmaster, West Rise Junior School, TES Primary School of the Year 2015
"Refreshingly down to earth, dealing with the big important challenges to face middle leaders but without any of the management speak that can make readers feel inadequate. Middle leaders are the 'spinal column' of the body of a school and their impact increasingly subject to inspection scrutiny. This book provides timely self-help support".
Dame Kathryn August DBE