Don't give up on your department

19th September 2003 at 01:00
Robin Precey Answers your leadership questions

For the third year since I have been at my school, the GCSE results in the modern languages department - where I am acting head for the year - were disappointing. We have, I believe, a strong department of predominantly good, experienced teachers. We put our heads together regularly and it is a mutually respectful atmosphere in which we frequently share good practice and try new strategies. The outgoing head of department told me last year that: "It wouldn't matter if we were replaced with a bunch of weaker teachers - the results would stay the same." This view depressed me profoundly and, while I see where it comes from, I refuse to be defeated (yet!). This is due to be our most challenging year in terms of staff, with a new teacher and another in his second year who has plenty of room for development. I should add that we are an inner-city school. Any helpful comments would be most welcome.

The issues that you raise affect many of us and are well worth some analysis.

First we must look carefully at what you mean by "disappointing". We have been and continue to be pushed into a competitive culture where the percentage of A*-Cs are in danger of becoming the main measure of the value of our efforts and skills. It is critical that you stand back and get a sense of perspective at the start of your period of leadership. There are a number of legitimate ways to assess academic success. They include:

* The percentage of A*-Cs and A*-Gs compared to similar schools. Although there is still debate about what "similar" means, the percentage of students claiming free school meals is the main one used at present.

* The "value added" to each student - how they performed in modern languages compared to their previous performances (key stage 2 and 3 Sats) and cognitive ability tests (usually sat in Year 6 or 7 and 9). A danger with Sats is that they will be teacher-assessed for languages and if that is not secure in Year 9 then comparisons at GCSE are invalid.

This comparative data with similar schools and previous performance is available in your Panda (Performance and Assessment Data) that schools receive from the Department for Education and Skills in November December for the previous summer's results. There should be someone in your school who knows all about this so seek them out and do a detailed analysis of how your department has performed in the past three years. Is it really "disappointing"? If so, why?

* Another useful analysis is to look at each student's GCSE grade and compare it to the grades they received in other subjects. How many have done better or worse in your subject?

When you have done this try to form some hypotheses. Is there a gender issue? Is there a teacher issue? Can the department learn from a member of your team who seems to add most value? Is there a student grouping issue? Is there a wider school policy issue? Are modern languages in your school now optional at GCSE or compulsory? Is this the best policy? Are there other departments in the school that regularly perform well from which you can learn? When you have some firm ideas, based on data, present them to your department.

A second issue that you raise in your letter is to do with your role as the acting head of department. There is no excuse for the former HoD's comments. It devalues our profession and demeans our students. Mediocrity and complacency are not options if we are to have clear consciences. You are right to refuse to be defeated. Set your own standards high and be persistent and focused. This is especially important in terms of the staff in your team this year.

You will also need to get some ideas on how to make the difference that you so want. This will require some research by you (and your team) using an MFL adviser (if you have one), other schools that seem to be doing well in your subject area, and websites (such as,, and ).

It is important when you come in as a new HoD to take stock in the ways mentioned and to plot a path forward over the next few years. You will need to be firm yet responsive, honest, supportive and celebratory with your team and you will need to set high yet realistic standards. You will need support in this and I would hope that this will come from your line manager. Explain to them and your headteacher what you intend to do and get them on board.

Sustainable change takes some time to develop and it is about changing cultures in schools - so do not expect short-term miracles.

However, some immediate measures coming out of your analysis of performance need to show people that you mean business. In your new role you can move things forward and improve the situation for your staff and, most important, for your students.

Robin Precey has been in education for 31 years, the past 12 as head of Seaford Head community college in East Sussex. He is also a consultant on the National College for School Leadership's New Visions programme. Do you have a school leadership or management question? Contact Susan Young at The TES,

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