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How to keep a level head

Are department heads under too much pressure? Sarah Ford looks at ways of coping

Heads of science are under pressure: they have so many issues to address. There is no panacea, but there are ways of making life manageable.

The first, most important step is to realise that no matter what you are coping with, there are other people who are in the same or similar situation. The next is to take a step back and identify priorities.

What issues are the most important? Frequently, these are dictated by external factors: inspection, league tables, target-setting, raising achievement, initiatives in key skills. Do you have the information you need to address them? The most frustrating issues often concern the paperwork overload.

As well as being head of science in a comprehensive, I am chair of the Association for Science Education's 11-16 committee. It aims to put together some guidelines for heads of science. Most heads are well trained in their subjects, and have classroom skills, but may need help with management.

Key skills

Science in the curriculum faces more pressure than it has for many years. We cannot afford to be complacent: we need to identify our strengths in the key skills area - literacy and numeracy - and broadcast them. We have to fight our corner for the unique contribution science can make.

"Writing frames" have long been used within science to help pupils write investigative reports. Key words and glossaries are common in our texts. Cloze procedures, comprehension and other activities that focus on texts link directly to improving language skills. SATIS-style materials, where pupils role play and interact with each other are excellent for improving communication skills.

As a starting point, go through the language activities used in your teaching and make sure the school as a whole is aware of them.

The link with numeracy seems even more obvious, but you should take the initiative. Identify the strengths from your repertoire in science and promote them before external influences dictate what your involvement in the "whole school" initiative will be.

Target-setting Target-setting will not go away, however problematic it might seem at times. All teachers hope that their pupils will realise their potential. If we are aiming to improve, then it helps to know what we are aiming for, and where we are starting from.

Keep a level head about your target-setting. Where possible, base your predictions on prior achievement, current knowledge of pupil attainment in your subject, plus other data, such as CAT scores and London Reading test marks. Although not based on science, these are useful indicators.

Do not get bogged down with some of the more ridiculous targets. It is just not sensible to set targets for pupils at key stage 3 when they are still at key stage 2 - and have not yet decided to be taught by you!

Reap the benefits from target- setting. Keep sight of the individual pupil. Let pupils know your expectations.

Finally, identify the issues that you cannot change and make the best of them. You cannot change your senior management team. The cohort of pupils that your school takes is unlikely to change. Accept that negotiation does not always work; some people will not be reasonable - ensure that you are not one of them.

Keep the improvement of teaching and learning of pupils as your key priority and enjoy the time you spend in the classroom.

Sarah Ford is head of science at Birchgrove Comprehensive School, Swansea, and chair of the ASE's 11-16 committee

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