How to lead whole-school improvement as a subject lead

Subject leads need to be cheerleaders for their subject areas and not lose faith if it takes longer than expected to get colleagues on board with change, writes one primary science lead

Kathryn Horan

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As a member of middle-management or a subject lead, you are the cheerleader for your area. And if your subject responsibility is something other than maths or English, it’s likely you’ve been having to cheer ever louder over the past few years to make yourself heard.

Affecting change beyond your own classroom is a difficult task at the best of times, but when workloads are already full to bursting, it is tough to persuade colleagues to devote time to something extra. Without a dedicated subjects lead, subjects such as art, history, modern foreign languages and even science run the risk of being neglected in favour of the Sats subjects. So, it is vital that a subject lead be the force driving improvement in the more neglected areas of the curriculum.

But how should you go about this? Here are my steps to leading improvement in your subject area.

1. Identify need

The first step is to identify what exactly requires improvement. Time is a precious commodity for teachers, so none of your colleagues will be willing to take on a project for a project’s sake. Anything you plan to set in place must address a specific need. Identifying this need will require some form of monitoring activity, which can be as simple as carrying out a staff survey. Teachers are, on the whole, very good at identifying gaps in their own skills, and they will certainly be quick to point out any resources or schemes of work that will make their lives easier.

2. Gather resources

Once you’ve identified your need, you’ll need to track down your resources. A quick internet search, a visit to a conference or even a rifle through your recent mail will no doubt turn up a variety of possibilities from a broad range of consultants, organisations and experts, all claiming to be exactly what you need. The best way to narrow down your options is by talking to other teachers, who will give you the real scoop behind the glossy advertising. In an ideal world, these discussions would take place in person at CPD courses, conferences or networking events, but as budgets are being spread ever more thinly, teachers are getting less and less access to these sorts of events.

Thankfully, social media is providing an excellent – and free – alternative to face-to-face collaboration and idea sharing. Twitter and Facebook now have thriving communities of teachers all willing to offer ideas and advice, not to mention the more education-specific forums such as those run by Tes and Stem Learning. In fact, tweeting or posting about your need may turn up results that don’t require any spending at all, directing you to websites with free resources or sharing practical ideas at little to no cost. In terms of resources that do cost money, there will undoubtedly be someone else out there who has already made that spend and can tell you if it represents good value for money.

3. Trial it yourself before pitching it to colleagues

Now comes the hard part. You’ve identified the gap and found the tools to plug it – all that’s left is getting your colleagues on board. No matter how dedicated and enthusiastic your team may be, the truth is there’s plenty of other things on their minds besides your new miracle idea and it’s likely to fall to the bottom of the priority list.

The first step in rolling out anything new is to thoroughly trial it yourself. You may be certain that this new scheme of work, feedback technique or app is the way forward, but that doesn’t mean everyone else will agree. They have not done the research you have, or had the conversations you have, so you will need to convince them personally by sharing your direct experience.

Once you have had a go, ironed out any kinks and gathered some evidence that what you’re pitching has a reasonable workload:benefit ratio, bring a few like-minded, enthusiastic colleagues on board to become your champions and to begin trials in their own classrooms. Three voices will be much more effective than one when lauding the benefits of your new project – and will also give you more evidence that this is doable and gets the desired results.

4. Differentiate

We often forget when speaking to our fellow teachers that adults need to be differentiated for just as much as children do. It’s likely that you could easily identify which of your colleagues will embrace these changes with open arms, which will show immediate enthusiasm but forget or lose interest once the staff meeting is over, and which will grumble about where they can fit this into their already busy day or hold steadfastly to "the way we’ve always done it here". Keep this in mind when it comes to pitching anything to a whole-staff team and plan for it carefully.

If delivering a staff meeting, you could ask staff to sit in particular groups, for example in key stage teams or with colleagues outside of their year group, to ensure that the naysayers are separated and mixed in with those more open to change. You could also ask your champions to sit strategically next to your most reluctant colleagues to allay any concerns that may be raised.

5. Get it in writing

With the staff meeting or inset now done, your job will be to follow up on your training to ensure it is being put into action. Even the most well-meaning and dedicated staff will forget to implement every new strategy they’re given when faced with the realities of a heavy workload. A good way to keep track of changes is to ask staff to make a ‘pledge’ at the end of a staff meeting to try out your new suggestion in some form, even if it’s something small. Make them be specific about what and when. For example, “I will try out the 'think, pair, square, share’ technique in our upcoming lesson on Stone Age homes,” or, “I will assess our current topic of sound using these new resources.” Make sure you get a copy of these pledges, and then, when the specified amount of time has passed, pop in on your colleagues or send one of your champions to ask how it went. This will not only serve as a reminder that they should be giving this a go, but will also give you valuable feedback about how things are working beyond your own classroom.

Most important of all is remembering that facilitating change on a school-wide level cannot be achieved overnight. Do not become despondent when the pace of change is not what you expected. Keep on plugging away, and keep your expectations of your colleagues as high as your expectations of your pupils.

Kathryn Horan is a college fellow for Primary Science Teacher Trust and a national expert Stem teacher at Greenhill Primary School in Leeds.

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