Leading teaching and learning together: the role of the middle tier

In this report, the culmination of a joint research project between Education Development Trust and IIEP-UNESCO, we explore the role of a critical but too often neglected set of actors in addressing the teaching and learning crisis worldwide: those working in the ‘middle tier’ of education systems. Together, these actors – from district education officers to teacher mentors – have incredible potential to improve learning outcomes, working across schools and districts to improve teaching quality. Drawing on a diverse range of case studies from Delhi, Shanghai, Jordan, Rwanda and Wales, we not only highlight the potential of middle-tier actors to bring about lasting change, but also assess the critical factors in enabling their success.

Almost every education system includes a middle tier of administration and management, linking the school and the central ministry of education. Within this middle tier is a cadre of education professionals – often experienced practitioners themselves – working across multiple schools or districts, whose proximity to teachers and schools gives them a unique opportunity to understand the barriers to teachers’ effectiveness and to develop and implement practical solutions. These middle-tier leaders can then go beyond supporting individual classrooms or schools to drive whole-system change. This report considers the potential role of middle-tier actors (specifically instructional leaders) as a force for good in the improvement of teaching practice.

While there is a wealth of evidence on the important roles of teachers and education leaders, comparatively little attention has been paid to the role and potential of these middle-tier professionals, such as supervisors, instructional coaches, and mentors in improving teaching quality. Although these actors can be key intermediaries in education systems, they are frequently overlooked in research and policy debates – meaning that the changes and nuances necessary for their success remain largely unarticulated and lessons are not drawn out for other education systems.

This report seeks to fill this gap by identifying positive examples of effective instructional leadership at the middle tier and the conditions that enable their success, so that these learnings can be applied to other education systems and policy reforms around the world. In drawing attention to the ‘missing middle’, we call for expanded forms of instructional leadership, and invite broader reflections on the structure of education systems and an opportunity to rethink relationships and interactions across their different levels.

We believe that the examples of effective instructional leadership detailed in this report (three of which – Rwanda, Jordan and Wales – are drawn from our own programmes) demonstrate the potential of the middle tier as an accelerator for positive change and an effective conduit for taking reforms and innovations to scale. Our analysis leads us to conclude that such potential will be best realised where:

  • Ministries of education invest in professionalisation of the middle tier. Taken together, the case studies demonstrate the importance of professionalising the middle tier and peer leadership in any attempt to use this segment of the education system to improve teaching and learning. Policymakers’ investment in strengthening and professionalising the middle tier – for example, by investing in recruitment policies, offering enhanced professional status, and prioritising high-quality professional development – contributes to the construction of a group of confident change agents at the middle tier.  

  • Middle-tier professionals are given agency and autonomy to support teaching and learning improvement. One critical success factor in all the examples discussed in this report was the existence of what we refer to as an ‘empowering culture’. Across our case studies, middle-tier actors were permitted to use their professional judgement: policymakers trusted them to interpret and adapt broad policy directions and make them relevant to school professionals in their locality. Giving them such agency, rather than treating them as enforcers in a purely top-down policy delivery approach, means that the middle tier has the potential to become an active, learning, problem-solving entity, with real potential to effect sustainable change. 

  • Policymakers accept the need to gradually adopt and adapt innovations to successfully embed changes. Across our case studies, policymakers faced similar challenges, with initial opposition to changes such as peer coaching and collaborative accountability structures. Our analysis shows that a flexible mindset and willingness to gradually adapt to new innovations – enabling middle-tier professionals to develop in their new roles and establish their legitimacy – proved to be a critical factor in the success of the reforms.

This report is the culmination of a significant research partnership between IIEP-UNESCO and Education Development Trust which began in 2018. Our first report, ‘Change Agents: Emerging Evidence on Instructional Leadership at the Middle Tier’, was published in 2020, in wider partnership with the Education Commission, and offered a review of emerging international evidence about how middle-tier professionals can catalyse improvement in teaching and learning. This report expands our enquiry into this topic, with new empirical evidence on promising practice from five diverse jurisdictions: the cities of Delhi and Shanghai, the Kingdom of Jordan, Rwanda and Wales. 


To celebrate the launch of the report, we hosted a two-part webinar series with IIEP-UNESCO on 21st and 23rd February 2023. The webinars focused on two central questions: how can instructional leaders positioned at the middle tier of education systems improve teaching and learning? What does it take for instructional leaders at the middle tier to be successful?