Do subject leaders need their own office?

With space and budget tight, how can headteachers facilitate individual offices for subject leaders? Yvonne Williams finds out

Yvonne Williams

Middle leadership: Do subject leaders need their own office?

For headteachers, one of the most difficult decisions to make is how to allocate space in crowded buildings and, in these cash-strapped times, on limited budgets. There’s no longer a statutory requirement for staffrooms in new premises but what about dedicated space for middle leaders? Many would jump at the chance to have their own office, but can we really justify it?

Well, for pastoral staff, the case is clear: they are constantly handling difficult situations and a private space in which they can have sensitive conversations with pupils, parents and other staff is a necessity. No one would wish to see emotionally fraught transactions conducted publicly.

The case for subject leaders, however, is less clear-cut. Traditionally they have managed to work with shared facilities and benefited from closer contact with their departments. It could be argued that the consequent informal discussions have fuelled collaboration and innovation – and many still prefer things this way. 

And yet, research from UCL, published in April this year, found that there are downsides. The study concluded that the distractions of an open-plan space can lead to reduced productivity.

More for middle leaders:

Looking at how the remit for subject leaders has increased in recent decades does make the case for individual offices stronger: they now have to spend time on monitoring, inspection documents, departmental planning and generating schemes of work, as well as health and safety policies, and therefore need facilities of their own to avoid monopolising shared computers.  

In addition to all of this, more time is spent on phone calls to parents and other stakeholders. Confidential meetings and staff reviews require privacy. There’s a political argument, too: heads of department can be criticised for getting too close to their staff and, therefore, by physically moving them into space of their own – a kind of middle, separated ground – the social dynamic can be changed.

Offices for middle leaders: finding the space

It’s clear then, that for subject leaders, space and IT facilities need to be apportioned differently, if possible. But how can a new room be created when there is little or no additional space?

1. Work with what you have

One answer is that headteachers have to work with what they have. 

Incoming colleagues have been known to colonise book cupboards, move the stock elsewhere (with the consent of other colleagues) and import their own desks. The aesthetic appeal may be limited (there is nothing glamorous about hunching over a lamp-lit desk in cramped conditions) but privacy has been assured. And as more resources move online, larger cupboards may become available for repurposing.

Repurposing rooms has been quite ingenious. For example, I read about one case in which a gents’ toilet was transformed into an office and the facilities moved elsewhere. 

It’s also possible to change partitions in formerly large general office areas to create more individual rooms. Or, more controversially, you might hive off a small area at the back of a library or practical room.

2. A shared office

Alternatively, it may be better to house two subject leaders in one larger office, if such a room is already in existence. Or it may be possible to move in an additional person to share with the existing incumbent. This may not be quite a room of one’s own, but no two staff have exactly the same allocation of non-contact periods. The occupants can negotiate sharing of the computer, if resources are limited, and times when they need the privacy in which to conduct their personnel management role. 

The added advantage of this arrangement is that, inevitably, teachers share ideas and challenges – even those most inundated with bureaucracy.  And these cross-curricular discussions can lead to more collaboration across departments.

Are the gains worth it?

Remember, both of the above can be introduced on a trial basis. If there has been no provision of offices for subject leaders in the past, there will be the costs of building and furniture to consider. For many schools with no reserves and no wriggle-room in the budget, that is as far as the discussion will go. 

But headteachers with creative spatial awareness and a relatively small sum may be able to manufacture offices out of seemingly thin air. What will then drive the decision are considerations of staff dynamics, the degree of formality in the staffing structure and whether the gains in productivity are worth the outlay and the upheaval.

Yvonne Williams has spent nearly 34 years in the classroom and 22 years as a head of English. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge)

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Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams has spent nearly 34 years in the classroom and 22 years as a head of English. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to the book, Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School.

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