Investigating the role of middle leaders

This peer-reviewed research article is published by John De Nobile, Kylie Lipscombe, Sharon Tindall-Ford and Christine Grice, academic partners of the School Leadership Institute (SLI). It reports world-first findings on the scope of middle leaders responsibilities in the NSW public education system based on research commissioned by the SLI.


The SLI commissioned research from academics at 3 Australian universities on Formal Middle Leadership in NSW in 2019. This project sought to improve understanding of middle leadership in NSW public schools and to support the professional development of these vital school leadership positions across the system.

This article is the first peer-reviewed publication to emerge from the project. It explored the data more deeply and found that there are 7 main elements to the role of middle leaders in schools.

The researchers analysed data from a survey of more than 2600 middle leaders in NSW public schools to explore and understand the duties performed by assistant principals and head teachers.

This research provides the first empirical evidence confirming current theories and measurement of the roles that formal middle leaders play when leading in their schools. It also expands previous knowledge on middle leader roles by highlighting the importance of curriculum centred tasks in their work.

Research approach

  • The article analysed data from a survey of teachers in middle leadership positions (head teachers and assistant principals) in NSW public schools

  • 2608 completed survey responses were analysed

  • Analysis of the responses was conducted to identify patterns and relationships between responses

  • The approach is a world-first in conceptualising a model for middle leadership and it is solely based on research commissioned by the SLI and conducted with teachers from within the NSW public education system.

Key findings and recommendations

  • This research confirms that for formal middle leaders in our system, middle leadership can consistently be seen as comprising at least 7 main elements: staff development, managing students, administration, organising people, managing curriculum, staff supervision, and leading learning and change

  • Management of curriculum is highlighted in this research as a significant aspect of the role of middle leaders that has not been sufficiently addressed or recognised in the literature before

  • Recognition of the complexity and significance of the role of middle leaders is advanced by this research and should inform practice in schools, professional leadership learning and future research.

Our response

  • The SLI has developed role-appropriate, relevant and evidence-informed professional learning programs and resources for teachers in our system. Understanding the breadth and complexity of middle system leaders’ roles informs design and delivery of middle system leader initiatives.

  • This research was published in an international, high impact academic journal on educational administration, management and leadership. Findings from this world-first research in the NSW system is therefore now contributing to the evidence base that can inform theory and practice in other systems around the world.

  • There are further phases of this research underway that will support further contributions to the knowledge base on middle leader roles and professional leadership learning for our public schools and for education systems internationally.

Investigating the roles of middle leaders in NSW public schools.


  • Teaching and learning


  • Educational research
  • Leadership and management

Business Unit:

  • School Leadership Institute
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