Caught in the middle

1st September 2000 at 01:00
Paul Hammond and Alma Harris advise subject leaders on how to meet performance-management challenges

The Government, despite the legal kickback suffered recently, seems determined to reintroduce performance-management proposals.

These replace appraisal regulations which, although welcomed by most teachers in 1991, have fallen into disuse in many schools. The new proposals make a more direct reference to pupils' learning and encourage priorities to be defined in school and team-development plans.

A radical shift has taken place in the role of heads of department who will carry out the majority of the performance reviews. Ten years ago, their role was largely administrative. Expectations rarely extended beyond routine management tasks. Variability in performance was accepted rather than challenged.

Publication of the Teacher Training Agency's subject leader standards in 1998 changed that. These highlight the importance of the subject leader securing "high-quality teaching and improved standards of achievement".

This brings expectations that for many middle managers are confusing and conflicting. These conflicts may intensify as subject leaders prepare for the "team leadershipline management" role that all middle managers will assume under the new performance-management regime.

Subject leaders normally have a significant teaching responsibility. There will be an inevitable conflict of roles as subject leaders normally try to balance teaching with the demands of:

induction of team members into new responsibilities;

supervision, support and mentoring;

performance reviews demanding evaluative skills;

meeting their colleague's professional development needs.

At worst, subject leaders will attempt to "juggle" existing time to meet these requirements or will simply decide that the demands placed upon them are too great and will fail to meet the required standards.

If subject leaders are to be able to work most effectively on behalf of their team members and the school then additional time would seem to be an important pre-requisite.

At the core of the subject leaders' role is improving the quality of teaching and learning. This inevitably involves monitoring subject performance and evaluating the quality of teaching.

It also necessitates judging teaching performance and, if necessary, challenging "poor" teaching and unacceptable classroom practices.

Subject leaders will be increasingly called upon as a source of evidence about teaching capability and competence.

Yet, they also have a major role to play in supporting colleagues. As a team leader, their role is to foster trust and mutual support within the team.

Research evidence shows that effective subject leaders build collegiate teams where collaboration and sharing permeate working relationships. Less effective subject areas are those where mistrust, individualism and poor inter-personal relationships dominate.

In large departments, subject leaders will not be able to fulfil the line-management role for all colleagues. Therefore, those that have responsibility points for, say, deputy head of maths department, KS3 English or individual sciences within larger departments, may also find themselves as line managers for a number of staff, perhaps for the first time. Those in his new position will probably find the tension between "accountability" and "development" particularly hard to resolve.

Subject leaders need to clarify responsibilities. Any review of performance uses the job description as a starting point. For every teacher with responsibility points there should be a document detailing the nature of this responsibility. It is common for departmental members to take on responsibilities without getting financial remuneration but even in these cases, expectations should have been clarified.

Classroom observation will need to form an integral part of the evidence to be gathered for performance review. Is this form of monitoring "accepted good practice" in your department, as the DFEE suggests. Have the characteristics of effective teaching been discussed and is there agreement on procedures for the recording of observations in a standard format?

Most important of all, does your department exhibit that spirit of mutual trust and support necessary for the honest and effective provision of professional feedback? Do heads of departments take a lead by opening their classroom in this way?

School and departmental development plans form an important background to discussions about personal priorities and objectives. Does such a plan exist for your department and has its contents been negotiated with departmental colleagues? Do they have a copy of the document and are they aware of the responsibilities that have been assigned to them? To what extent does your departmental plan show coherence with the wider school priorities?

To keep progress under "active review", study the timetables of those for whom you are responsible and identify a mutually free period that can act as your regular meeting time. This might be once a fortnight or monthly, but at least you have a time in the diary that has been earmarked for discussion. Make it the second half of the period so that there is a definite end point. Furthermore, feel free to cancel if, on occasion, there is nothing that needs discussion.

Are there genuine opportunities for professional growth in your department? Are colleagues aware of courses being run by subject associations? Is there the chance to chair a departmental meeting? Represent the department on school working parties? Write a scheme of work? Liaise with primary feeder schools?

If we are to make pupil progress a focus of our discussions with colleagues, does the department have an understanding of the mechanisms by which judgments can be made? Do Year 7 and Year 10 teachers have details of prior attainment from the previous national curriculum tests? To what extent does the department use the value-added comparisons to evaluate progress and set targets?

For many of us, appraisal has been a bureaucratic distraction. Now we hope that performance management will result in a regular dialogue based on fair evidence with the intention of developing professional expertise.

If it does turn out like that, it will be the middle managers who deserve much of the credit.

Dr Alma Harris is a Reader in Educational Leadership and Management in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham. E-mail Paul Hammond is a deputy head at Tring School in Hertfordshire. E-mail

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