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Grow your own subject leaders

March 27, 2023, 19:14 GMT+1
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Grow your own subject leaders

There was a time - perhaps there still is - when the subject you were ‘leading’ in school depended on when you arrived and what was left.

But with the refined focus on the consistency and quality of education across the curriculum, leadership in subjects has become more important than ever. 

In the current climate, it’s imperative we’re driven to ensure every subject in school offers the very best to our pupils. And making sure we grow and develop our subject leaders is a key to getting this right.

Growing and empowering teachers – regardless of their level of experience - carries both opportunities and challenges. But amongst a range of strategies I have used as a curriculum leader, these four have been mutually beneficial both for the whole-school, as well as individual subjects. 

You’re a caretaker now

Becoming the leader of a subject that you feel passionate about can, and should, be tremendously motivating.

It’s not without its difficulties, however. We want all our pupils and colleagues to share that bounce and buzz for the subject, but we also need to ensure our approach is aligned with the aims of the school. 

It’s why, when I support and coach staff on subject leadership, I explain we should think of ourselves as ‘caretakers’.

It is our job to ‘take care’ of the subject(s) for which we are responsible: to ensure our pupils receive the very best education and that the subject contributes positively to the overall quality of education in the school.

From the outset, we need everybody to see themselves as being part of the big picture.

This message is particularly important to give to those who are being asked to lead subjects in which they lack confidence or enthusiasm. There is a whole-school purpose to subject leadership beyond the perfunctory, and leaders should feel empowered by their role in it.

Crucially, I always remind staff our roles are not for the benefit of Ofsted but an opportunity for us to ensure our pupils get the very best deal in each subject and across school.

A collegiate curriculum model

To develop a whole-school vision, we need a whole-school voice. That’s why we work collaboratively to create and review our ‘features of effective teaching and learning’ in each subject.

How often do we get to talk about great teaching in art? Or PE? Or MFL? These conversations are always empowering and refreshing – they remind us of the importance of all our subjects and help us to reflect on our practice.

As part of these conversations – which we have during an inset day or series of staff meetings – we review guidance from a range of organisations such as The Historical Association or the Association for Science Education to inform our thinking.

Together, as a community of teachers, we discuss, agree and conclude what features we’d hope to see across the teaching of each subject. This gives us a shared vision, so everybody knows what we’re aiming for. 

Keeping feedback focused

With Ofsted’s focus on the curriculum, the expectations on subject leaders seem greater now than in the past. I first stepped into a leadership role 14 years ago, without any training, and my style of leadership was very much based on how I had been led. It wasn’t until I began the then Leadership Pathways course that I was coached to consider what my style of leadership should be - and how others may receive and respond to this. 

If we’re going to ask our subject leaders to evaluate the quality of education in their subject then we need to support them to do so. 

This is where the ‘features of effective teaching’ helps. Evaluating against this whole-school vision for each subject keeps the conversation about the subject, and not on the individual. This also helps to define what makes a great geography lesson, as distinct from a great PE lesson.

Whilst we know there will be some generic features – there will be many differences, too. 

Curriculum conversations

Holding bi-annual discussions about key areas in each subject has been one of the most effective activities I’ve introduced as part of this approach. These are conversations, not interviews, about the status of each subject. They support me as overall curriculum leader, but also help the subject lead to reflect and look ahead.

Around two weeks prior to these conversations (for which I allow 45 minutes) I send six question prompts or discussion points I’d like us to discuss.

Examples include ‘What good practice is happening?’ and ‘What CPD may we need to provide?’. Points are linked to SIP priorities and have accompanying prompts to help prepare subject leaders; it’s not a quiz, test or interview.

Then, together, we discuss each point. By sending the points in advance, subject leaders have already reflected and come prepared. It gives me the chance to gauge their feelings and assess what support I can give them, whilst also helping us to build a whole-school picture. 

We always end by RAG-rating the subject: this is absolutely not a judgement about the quality of education. It is, rather, about the extent of ‘development’ we feel is needed at that stage in the subject.

For instance, if an entirely new scheme of work has been introduced, we would be ‘red’ because we know CPD needs may be extensive. This in turn helps the SLT focus on what is needed for the whole-school picture.

It also enables leaders to talk about their subject in a professional context without the pressure of cold-calling questions.

What we learnt

  • By linking the discussion points from curriculum conversations to priorities in your SIP (such as individual adaptations to subjects for SEND pupils) you are able to assimilate a picture of the status of each subject relative to your overall goals.
  • Sending prompts ahead of time will invite staff to come to you in advance of meetings, and ensure the conversations are effective when they happen.
  • Encouraging people to see themselves as ‘caretakers’ empowers staff as leaders of subjects. They may not be an ‘expert’ in the subject, but they are ‘our expert’ in how we teach and learn in it. The concept of caretaker and a community approach also encourages everyone to work together and share a vision.
  • Once you’ve established your features of effective teaching, make time annually to review it, ideally before the subsequent academic year. It shouldn’t just be a tick list but a shared ethos of practice for your school and pupils. Reviewing it enables everyone to contribute their practice over the year, refresh their thinking and consider new ideas, too.

Adam Jevons-Newman is deputy headteacher at Abbey Hill Primary & Nursery School, Nottingham