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A lesson in discretion

So you've been made head of department... and the first thing you realise is that you have inherited many weaknesses.But don't despair.

It is possible to turn around a department from being unpopular with pupils, parents and staff to one of the most respected, effective and positive in a school. The key is to diagnose the main points that have contributed to the problems and deal with them straight on. But be realistic. Many departments are subject to external factors such as staffing issues or timetabling problems that can affect their success. To some extent these need to be seen as fixed, so you need to focus on things that can be changed.

Identifying weaknesses Ofsted Read the most recent inspection report. It may give clues to some of the areas that need development. Make a note of the principal areas that need addressing. Remember that some problems may have already been dealt with.

Department staff Ask your staff what they perceive to be the department's main problems. Be prepared to hear things that you don't want to hear, but encourage them to be honest. There is no point ignoring the fundamental issues and dealing with peripheral problems. Remember to filter information and recognise the biases.

Give staff the feeling that you are prepared to listen to them, but also have expectations. This is a good time to get a "feel" for your staff and the variety of personalities that you will be managing. Keeping your staff happy is one of the main ways of making your department a positive and successful one. Happy staff are more likely to want to work as a team and become involved.

Be prepared to deal with staff who possibly can't see the problems you have identified and may get defensive at the idea that the department has weaknesses. Choose your language carefully: the words "failing" and "weak" have connotations that some people don't want to hear. Stay positive.

Pupils Children can be extremely honest and quite reliable in assessing the successes and failures in a department. You can listen to their comments during lessons or ask them direct questions that can give you the answers you are looking for. Present it to them as an evaluation of their learning rather than an opportunity to undermine your colleagues. Look in their books to see the kind of work that has been completed, or not. Ask pupils about their learning, for example, about their best lesson last year and the worst. This identifies strengths and weaknesses. Take them with a pinch of salt, but you may see significant correlations.

Other staffmanagement You will probably hear things in the staffroom about the department and its reputation. Listen and evaluate what is gossip and what is based on truth. Learning support assistants andor classroom assistants can usually provide accurate information on lessons as they are in class with pupils and see lessons from the learner perspective.

Liaise with senior staff on what they see as the issues that need to be addressed. Ask them what opportunities are available to support you in your job.

Speak to the school's other heads of department, especially those that are perceived to be successful. They must be doing something right so listen to their ideas. Don't take things personally. At least not until you've had some time to make some changes.

From all the evidence you have collected, prepare a list of strengths and weaknesses which can be turned into an action plan.

planning Once you have gathered enough information about the department, you must plan to address the weaknesses and promote the strengths even more. A minimum timescale for implementing a plan should be a year. Miracles don't happen overnight and an academic year allows you to work through the cycle with your new plan at least once.

Draft a plan with the crucial areas identified, how they will be addressed, and the time scale. Note who will take responsibility for each action. Use your staff to help you: they should want the department to improve so should be willing to help out. Use staff strengths rather than making them feel like they have to do more work.

Promote the benefits to them. Share the action plan with the department and senior management team to raise any further issues. Review the plan regularly to show progress and ensure that targets are being addressed. Be flexible in its implementation and be prepared for things not to always work first time.

The most important thing as a head of department is to stay positive and to have a desire to make things work so that everyone in the department benefits.

* Read Dawn's next column at the start of March.

Dawn Cox is head of RE and GTPNQT co-ordinator at St Charles Lucas arts college in Colchester

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