News and opinion

Niki Thomas

Middle leadership in the Middle East

10 March 2017

Niki Thomas, Education Development Trust associate consultant, reflects on training she delivered as part of a middle leadership development pilot project in Alexandria, Egypt.

Working with and developing leaders is something of a passion of mine – I so enjoy watching leaders explore their values, develop leadership skills and approaches and grow in confidence. When the opportunity arose to work with such a group in Alexandria, Egypt, developing a bespoke leadership programme for them in partnership with colleagues from the UCL Institute of Education (IOE), I signed up.

Unfamiliar territory

While working with middle leaders and developing programmes to support them is quite familiar territory for me, the context for this particular work was completely unfamiliar. I had never even been to Egypt let alone visited an Egyptian school. However, I wasn't on my own: my colleague Eleanore Hargreaves from the IOE has a 35-year association with schools in Alexandria and Egyptian colleagues Dalia Elhawary and Mohamed Maghoub brought knowledge and experience of the local education systems. Local contextual understanding was fundamental to being able to develop this bespoke programme to the needs of the participants. In addition, these colleagues had already conducted research into pupils’ perceptions of English language learning in three different Alexandrian schools. Pupils shared that they wanted to learn language actively, using a variety of sources to stimulate their learning and develop confidence in both spoken and written English. While many teachers understood and shared these views, they feel under considerable pressure to ensure pupils achieve good marks in grammar and vocabulary tests, this dominates their teaching.

Briefings and bodyguards

We started the whole thing off with a briefing for the principals and senior leaders and officials of the various school organisations (including, for some, their bodyguards –something I have not experienced before!). We got off to a great start and everyone was so enthusiastic; they loved the connection with Education Development Trust and the IOE and they were so excited to have colleagues from the UK to facilitate the programme. The timings of our briefing session went completely out of the window as when we broke for coffee everyone wanted to have their photograph taken with us. It is probably the closest I will come to experiencing what it’s like to be a celebrity on the red carpet!

The next stage in the project, a three-day leadership training session, was a little more familiar. Our approach was to ensure that it started from and drew on their experience of the participants but that it also challenged their views of their role and gave them confidence to lead change. The focus on leading teaching and learning of English required the participants to go back to their core values and views on what education is for and describe the teaching and learning they would want in their departments. We also asked them compare their leadership roles and to frame some questions for middle and senior leaders in England. With our fingers crossed for reliable technology, we used Skype to bring them into the session for an international conversation about leadership. Dealing with difficult members of staff and parents, the pressures of the testing and assessment systems and supporting pupils with challenging behaviour were leadership challenges shared by all.

The participants particularly warmed to the interactive nature of the programme and by days two and three were more confidently throwing themselves into role-play and collaborative activities. Once we had got to know our group we spent every afternoon and evening reworking the programme for the next day to make sure it was going to meet their needs.

Leading change programmes

I think the leadership training helped the senior teachers to recognise that most of their work was management and administration and that in order to makes changes in their department they needed to pay more attention to leading learning. With that in mind we really wanted them to go away with something tangible that they could initiate and lead in school with their colleagues and pupils. So towards the end of the three-day programme the participants began to map out a change project that they would lead in their department.

What is particularly exciting and appealing about this project is that it doesn’t finish after the leadership training. The participants are being supported in their own middle leader professional learning communities, facilitated locally by Dalia and colleagues and in turn they are developing and facilitating their own teacher learning communities, to share and inspire innovative and interactive ways of teaching English to primary school and middle school pupils. By the end of the project, we expect middle leaders to have empowered teachers to take responsibility for their own CPD.

Stopping traffic

On a personal level, I learned a great deal from my engagement in this project. If I am honest I was way beyond my comfort zone at times but what I took away was how similar the challenges can be for teachers and leaders despite clearly very different contexts.I met some fabulous people doing a great job in difficult circumstances. I also experienced some of the most ‘interesting’ taxi journeys of my life, ate so much cake (goodness do they have a sweet tooth!) and discovered the only way to cross a road in Alex is to walk out purposefully and stop the traffic yourself.

For more information about our work in Egypt, see (opens in a new window).

Niki Thomas is an associate with Education Development Trust's Schools Partnership Programme (SPP). She develops high quality and robust peer review practice with teaching school alliances, multi-academy trusts and local systems. Formerly a primary headteacher, Niki has substantial experience working in collaborative school improvement and leadership development through roles including lead sssociate for the National College for Teaching and Learning for southern England, as a co-leader of a networked learning community and a local authority consultant adviser with a particular focus on collaboration and networks.