My survival guide for middle leaders

Head of department is a job that bring enormous responsibility, yet little extra time – Mark Enser offers some tips

Mark Enser

Middle leaders: How to survive as a school head of department

I have been a head of department for eight years now and, for the most part, it is a role that I love.

I enjoy thinking about the curriculum and planning lessons, considering where the department can improve and what we want to focus on next. 

I enjoy the department meetings and I enjoy going shopping with the department budget. All of this is wonderful.

But… 

There is clearly a problem in middle leadership that needs addressing. I notice that when a head of department position comes up in a school there is often a real problem finding enough applicants, however great that school is. 

At the other end, when a job is advertised for an assistant head role there are often dozens, and at times hundreds, of applications. Head of department is a job that too few people want to do and too many are in a hurry to leave. Why is this?

Middle leaders: How to handle the pressure as a head of department

Middle leadership roles leave you squeezed. Your teaching timetable is often not that much lighter than any other classroom teacher and yet the management responsibilities can be daunting: performance management, assessment and data tracking, intervention, behaviour management, wider curricular activities… the list just goes on. 

Many of these management items are things that are raised suddenly and are then expected to be resolved within days, or sometimes hours. 

On top of that, you have the leadership responsibilities that many of us came to the role looking for, the strategic overview of where you want things to go, which needs time and reflection that we just can’t give it. 

On top of that, you can be trapped between pressure from above asking you to introduce more and more and pressure from below asking for a break from all the things being introduced. It can literally be a thankless task. 

So what can we do? Well, if we want heads of department to thrive, we need to give them much more time. Unfortunately, this is not something that is in my power to achieve (although I will continue to argue for it until I am blue in the face). If we can’t thrive, here are a few things that have at least helped me to survive the past eight years. 

Talk to your fellow heads of department

Sometimes it can feel as though there is an issue with doing something in your department that every other department is fine with. It is worth finding out if that is true so that the exact problem can be worked out and improvements suggested.

Perhaps everyone is finding a new homework policy unworkable or perhaps the same pupil is being disruptive in every class across the school and individual restorative meetings are unlikely to help. Many things that feel like a department problem turn out to be a whole-school issue and should be delegated upwards.

And talk to your fellow heads of department to find out where there are differences. Many things will work in one department but not in others and this, too, is useful to know. An assessment strategy that works in maths is unlikely to work in English. The natures of the subjects are just too different. 

Talk to your line manager

Especially about workload and deadlines. When something new has been introduced, ask where it fits as a priority and make it clear that it means that something else won’t get done. Think in terms of time budget: "This is the time I have available and this is the time I have been asked to spend," and make that thinking explicit.

Talk to your team

It can be tempting to think that, as head of department, you are responsible for doing everything that you have been asked to do. You are not. You are responsible for making sure it gets done, and this includes delegating. Have the same conversations with your team about time budgets that you have with your line manager: what time is available, what is being done in that time and what could be done in that time instead. 

Make time for your priorities 

You’ll know what needs to happen in your department to make it better, and other people’s priorities for their own work can get in the way. Ring-fence a block of time each week to focus on something you think is important to do. Grab a coffee and do it. 

Ultimately, the job of head of department will remain an all but impossible one to thrive in until school structures change to recognise just how much this job entails. However, although I am not sure many can thrive in the role, hopefully, with a little more discussion about the realities of this work, we can at least survive for a little longer.

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His latest book The CPD Curriculum is out now. He tweets @EnserMark

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories

Ministers seem to think schools are wasting money - in fact, schools are experts in cutting costs, says James Bowen

Why international teachers should receive financial CPD

There's a lot to learn working in another country - not least the financial situation and how to use your money wisely, which is why perhaps a CPD session or two would be a worthwhile investment
David Keating 30 Jul 2021