How Ofsted is putting subject leaders under pressure

The new Ofsted regime means that we're asking more from our primary subject leaders than ever before, says Michael Tidd

Michael Tidd

Do subject specialists make the best teachers?

With curriculum development on just about every school-improvement plan in the land, no doubt this year many teachers have found themselves leading a subject.

Many already were. But, in earlier times, being the design and technology leader probably meant that you were in charge of keeping the wood and dowelling topped up, and occasionally wishing you knew how to change the blade on a hacksaw.

With the new Ofsted school inspection framework, now, all of a sudden, you’re expected to be the designer of a mastery curriculum for multiple year groups – many of which you’ve never taught – and to be able to articulate the vision you had in doing so. 

Thank goodness you spent all those years at university studying design and technology pedagogy. Well, OK, maybe not years. But weeks, surely. Or perhaps a few hours.

Great Ofsted expectations

When I applied for teacher training in 1997, most undergraduate courses included a subject specialism for primary teachers. My own course required the selection of a second subject, too, so that you might offer a broad range of expertise when joining the profession. 

Then came Circular 04/98 – a long-forgotten edict from the Teacher Training Agency that set out a detailed curriculum for teacher training – and suddenly all of that went out the window, to be replaced by a hugely inflated core of English, maths and science.

Frameworks have come and gone, but the general direction of travel remained the same for the intervening 20 years: primary teachers were trained to teach all year groups, but with a narrower focus on the core subjects.

The average graduate teacher would be lucky to have had half a dozen hours of training on any given foundation subject: supposedly enough to make you competent to teach Year 6 just as well as Year 1.

School funding issues

None of this would be so much of a problem if we still had the in-service training that was once available. Rapidly collapsing local authorities and equally diminished school budgets have left little opportunity for regular network groups and training updates.

In the past, there might have been a chance once a year or so for subject leaders to get together at the local professional centre and share expertise, or to receive input from a county adviser who was steeped in the subject.

Today, it’s hard to imagine that local authorities have the capacity to provide such professional development, let alone that many schools have the budget left to enable teachers to attend them. And yet it seems we are asking more from our subject leaders than ever before.

For all that Ofsted might say that it understands the challenges for primary school subject leaders, there’s no doubt that there’s a clear expectation now that all subjects receive the same level of thought when it comes to planning and progression, and the same level of scrutiny when it comes to an inspection visit. 

Primary subject leaders' expertise

Twenty years ago, the curriculum had just changed from 10 to 11 subjects, as ICT got a programme of study in its own right. Now, add foreign languages and soon health and relationships education to the mix, and the typical primary school won't have enough teachers to go around. 

In fact, my informal Twitter survey last week suggests that one in five of us is leading a subject that we haven’t studied since the age of 14.

There’s no doubt that the demands are high. When Ofsted comes, it’s hard to see how primary subject leaders can have anything like the level of expertise and experience of their secondary department-lead counterparts.

And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that very few primary subject leaders are getting paid for it.

Michael Tidd is headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979

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