Virginia Makins looks at what makes a good head of department.
It is remarkable that the school improvement movement is only just beginning to recognise the importance of the middle managers in secondary schools - all those heads of department, heads of faculty and heads of year who are responsible for the quality of teaching and learning day to day.
Now the message is getting through. Those who have been working for years to provide better training for middle managers have been backed by the official voices of the Office for Standards in Education and the Teacher Training Agency. A recent report from Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, highlights the importance of middle managers: too many department heads take "the narrow view that their responsibility is for managing resources rather than people".
Last year, Ofsted published Subject Management in Secondary Schools. It describes the qualities it believes middle managers need to develop (see box below). In the inspectorate's judgment, about one in five schools has weaknesses in this area that frustrate their development.
"Until quite recently, being a head of department was about managing physical resources and writing schemes of work," says Mike Tomlinson, Ofsted's head of inspection. "Now, it's about managing staff and assessing their performance, and the performance of the department as a whole against other subjects with the same pupils. In many schools the challenges have not been met with training." But he added that even schools that see such training as a priority are not always able to find money to do it. The debate around the proposed new National Professional Qualification for Subject Leaders (see page 8) has also helped to raise the profile of middle management.
The Teacher Training Agency's list of criteria for a good middle manager may be daunting, with heads of department asked to be skilled data analysts, human resource managers, judges of good practice, leading-edge subject specialists, curriculum developers and demonstrators of fine teaching. But the agency has consistently emphasised that the only purpose of middle management development is to improve the quality of teaching and learning.
Pressure on middle managers may also come from another government quarter. In a speech in January, Estelle Morris, the minister for school standards, talked of improving appraisal arrangements. She said one "core element" could be that teachers will have to be appraised by their line managers. If middle managers had that specific responsibility, schools and departments that believe that peer review can be as valuable as appraisal by line managers would have to change their ways.
It is for the Government to decide whether there will eventually be a national qualification for subject leaders. Many of the subject associations have welcomed the initiative, and a few, notably the Association for Science Education and DATA, the Design and Technology Association, would be more than happy to become accredited providers of training.
Both associations, whose members have big managerial responsibilities with expensive capital resources, health and safety risks and support staff, already provide quite extensive training for heads of department, but the humanities subject associations consider that a frequently updated handbook will serve their members well.
Other subject associations are wary of the idea of a national qualification. They believe it could divert individual school's in-service training budgets from their immediate priorities. "There's a lot of nonsense talked about management in every profession," says Anne Barnes, the general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English. "Many management strategies expounded in courses merely replace common sense with jargon. A lot of management is very simple, talking to people, consulting, identifying strategies, playing to individual teacher's strengths, offering chances for them to develop.
"You do need to look to the future and have some sort of vision, to visit lessons and look at pupils work. But most people do that now. One of the good things about Ofsted is that lessons no longer take place behind closed doors. Anne Barnes believes that the way you manage a department "depends on your subject, your clientele, the school ethos and the staff in your department".
Research by Alma Harris at Nottingham University suggests that management style is one crucial difference between good and bad heads of subject departments and personal style is very hard to change. Her work is based on studies of departments in similar schools. "Ineffective departments are not just mirror images of effective ones; they have particular cultures and ways of working."
Poor managers either had a laisser-faire approach or were very authoritarian. Both styles generated frustration, and even hostility, among the colleagues they managed. There was no shared vision, meetings focused on trivial administrative details, schemes of work had not been collectively developed and approved and were regarded as unimportant, and there was no sustained professional conversation in the departments. Furthermore, the head of department's teaching and subject knowledge was not respected by colleagues.
In contrast, the effective heads of departments stressed the importance of improving pupils' learning and experience in ways that "went beyond the usual rhetoric".
They used data in a formative way, to sharpen targets and practice. They had a clear vision of the nature of their subject, how it should be taught, and where the department should be going. They ran "talking departments", marked by constant professional discussion, both formal and informal, and were seen as leading professionals in their field.
One conclusion of this research is that very different improvement strategies are needed for heads of departments at different stages of development. It also implies that the capacity for growth of some poor heads of departments who manage to produce adequate results may be limited. In some cases, schools may have to work around long-serving middle managers rather than through them to raise quality in their subjects.
Anne Gold at London's Institute of Education believes that "people's situations are so different it is no good telling them 'how to manage'; you can't reduce management to bullet points. Each school is different and has different systems in place. "Heads of department are often appointed because they are good teachers, but they have little management experience. They need time to think, to work out ways of developing trust, teamwork and a shared vision in their department, and to try things out and evaluate them," she says.
She runs courses - usually three three-day sessions - where trainees spend a good deal of time sharing experience, reflecting on it and learning about management. They have to focus constantly on improving learning and teaching, and not get caught up in management for its own sake.
Middle management cannot be tackled in isolation. Only senior management can set a framework that develops and encourages teachers' talents and motivation, and disseminates good practice throughout the school. A good head of department in a badly run school can do no more than create an island of good practice in a sea of muddle and incompetence.
Research shows that even failing schools have some good subjects and year heads (conversely, even highly successful schools have poor middle managers). But, if pupils in the school as a whole are not to drown, that good practice needs to be widely shared and disseminated to their colleagues.
One head believes both senior and middle management offer a carrot and stick approach to developing quality. The stick comes in setting decent professional standards of teaching, marking, homework and so on, standards that all adequate teachers, however pedestrian or unmotivated, are required to meet. The carrot is providing exciting professional opportunities for the keen and ambitious, the kind of thing that both Chiswick and Sharnbrook Schools (see pages 6 and 7) do very well.
The best way of promoting more effective middle management seems to be to devote a great deal of collective in-service time to it. That has recently happened at Clapton School for Girls in Hackney, east London. The school devised and ran its own 40-hour management course accredited by London's Institute of Education for teachers and support staff with at least two years experience. Seventeen members of staff - one-third - signed up and five of them, including the school bursar, acted as facilitators and organised the training.
It was clearly an exciting experience for all concerned. Clapton's headteacher, Cheryl Day, says that all those involved became more skilled and confident managers, good at managing their own time and stress as well as other people's. But there was also a marked whole-school effect. "People were more willing to take on management roles.
"We had good systems in place anyway, but it strengthened understanding of the rationale for them and made people want to improve systems further. The whole atmosphere of the school is better. There are more professional conversations. The course raised awareness that individual teachers can make a difference," she says.
A less welcome result was that several teachers moved on to promotion elsewhere, so the staff as a whole are less experienced. Luckily, the remaining middle managers are now well able to cope.
Staff at Anthony Gell school in Derbyshire also decided to spend in-service time and money on middle management. It's a small comprehensive, with 600 pupils aged 11 to 18, that volunteered to take part in continuing research for Alma Harris. The school raised money for four heads of departments, who felt they had never had any proper training as managers, to meet regularly over several months. It was a self-help group, tackling the management issues in their departments revealed by Alma Harris's research. According to the headteacher, Rod Leach, the group has already shown results.
"It has helped them to establish priorities, enlist the support of other staff and get on top of the merry-go-round of paper," he said. "There is a danger that it could still all peter out. But we have already seen much stronger development plans for those departments, and more clarity about who does what and how it is evaluated. There is evidence of renewed vitality and self-confidence."
Longstanding problems have been solved. However carefully national criteria and qualifications are set, there is no substitute for senior managers having set negotiated and well-accepted, whole-school procedures for assessment and evaluation of results, making time and money available for their middle managers to set and deliver their own agendas for improvement to fit the requirements of their particular school, subjects or year groups, teams of staff, and above all, students.
GOOD DEPARMENTS: THE OFSTED CRITERIA
Heads of department are often appointed because they are good teachers, but they have little management experience. They need time to think, to work out ways of developing trust, teamwork and a shared vision.Anne Gold, London's Institute of Education * Strong but consultative leadership * Effective and equitable delegation of responsibilities * Regular and well-managed departmental meetings where all staff can contribute to planning and policy making * Departmentaldevelopment planning guided by and contributing to whole-school priorities,and identifyingtraining and resource needs * A comprehensive departmental handbook carryingforward school aims and policies, including suitable schemes of work for pupils of all ages and abilities * Systematic monitoring of the quality of teaching and observationof lessons, as well as debate about good practice * Optimum deployment of staff and effective organisation of classes * Regular monitoring of the assessment of pupils and moderation of assessments to maintain consistency * Systematicmonitoring of the achievement and progress of individual pupils and classes, linked to target setting and the evaluationof teaching * Identification oftraining needs and opportunities;appropriate support for inexperienced and non-specialist teachers and others with identified weaknesses.
From Subject Management in Secondary Schools, OFSTED 1997