Dreams of empire

19th January 1996 at 00:00
Compared with secondary heads of department, a primary subject coordinators' role is poorly defined. But, discovers Gerald Haigh, they are the rising stars of the staffroom. One problem is lack of time and resources.

At Sir Wilfrid Martineau School in Birmingham, where I once very happily taught, "Doc" Moreton, head of science, stood up from his lunch one day and announced: "I think I will now go and walk self-importantly about my department." That is not something you would ever hear a primary subject co-ordinator say, even satirically.

The primary co-ordinator's position seems ill defined when compared with that of a secondary head of department - there is rarely a physical empire of rooms and resources nor the opportunity to recruit and lead a team of fellow-specialists. The title "co-ordinator" seems to have been deliberately chosen for its slightly vague, non-authoritarian associations.

A coordinator, presumably does not baldly tell people what to do (perish the thought) but works alongside fellow professionals to develop their subject work together. Implicit in this arrangement is that the co-ordinator has specialist knowledge which will be brought tactfully into play, preferably on request.

It is not an easy job, this subject-centred management responsibility in a child-centred collaborative environment. Not least of the difficulties is finding the time to do it. The vast majority of primary teachers have full-time class responsibility, so the co-ordinator has limited opportunities for observing work in progress or holding meetings in school hours. And, in the average primary every teacher - including newly-qualified ones - will be a co-ordinator. So it is possible to see a modern primary as a place in which everyone is coordinating everybody else.

Despite the obvious problems, s have shot into prominence in recent years. "They are rising stars," is how Louisa Sliwa, head of Hare Street Infants in Harlow, puts it. "They have a really important role, especially in the core subjects."

They have not, though, as Fred Corbett, Principal Adviser for School Development in Essex, points out, risen from nowhere. There have always been subject responsibilities, he says. Any recent renewal of interest, "Is partly because of OFSTED and the resurgence of the notion of monitoring and evaluation."

Conventional wisdom is that the teaching profession is better at having ideas than at judging their effect. Fred Corbett's mention of monitoring and evaluation highlights what is potentially the most important and trickiest part of the coordinator's job. It is relatively easy for a keen coordinator to gather people and say, "This term, let's do these 10 amazing things", but considerably more difficult for her to keep tabs on how well they are being done and tackle colleagues who are dragging their feet.

Louisa Sliwa's account of managing her own coordinators shows that support from the head is vital. "coordinators monitor their curriculum areas, going round each class, focusing on particular things and observing the teachers at work," she explains. "From that they pick up training needs, and they may quietly go and work with a person who is finding an area difficult." Crucially, though, "This is all reported back to me, and we have devised a proforma for keeping notes on what needs to be done."

Fred Corbett, too, mentions the importance of keeping notes: "coordinators need to write an annual report on their subject in the school, saying what they think about standards in the school now. We've explored the idea of attaching some of these to the head's report to governors."

It is also the head's job to ensure the coordinator has time for all this. There is increasing realisation that subjects have to be picked up one or two at a time, according to the programme set out in the School Development Plan. As Louisa Sliwa puts it: "You have to prioritise, or the thing becomes unmanageable and you're tinkering. If you want to implement change you have to do it in depth and detail."

This implies that coordinators will wax and wane in prominence as time goes by, but that each in turn will attract investment of time and resources. "I do try to give them time out if they are monitoring," says Ms Sliwa. "I might say you can have Friday off to do that - it's not enough, but it's a token. "

Running through this notion of a rolling programme is whether the school gives different prominence to some subjects - and therefore some coordinators. Fred Corbett is wary of any policy which "reinforces a hierarchical view of the curriculum". If, for example, a school supports core subjects over foundation subjects, with more resources and better paid coordinators, it is introducing extra layers of hierarchy and is working against breadth of balance.

There are many uncertainties here, and much to discuss - something which is reflected in the amount of time and energy local authorities and other trainers are putting into support for primary coordinators. There is a real need for practical help which will help teachers do the co-ordinating job while class sizes are rising, budgets are being squeezed and non-contact time is increasingly a product of the creative use of whole-school hymn practices.

Mike harrison's tips for staying sane

What the curriculum coordinator can do:

* voice feelings about any doubts

* accept that this is a challenge

* ask for a clear definition of what is expected of you

* allow yourself to be less than perfect

Personal skills needed by coordinators include

an ability to:

* act consistently

* maintain hope, belief and optimism

* want success (though not necessarily approval)

* take risks* use conflict constructively

* use a soft voiceand low key* develop self-awareness

* tolerate ambiguity and complexity

* avoid seeing thingsas black and white

* become an active listener

Create a climate for change by:

* emphasising some aspect of good practice

* inviting a speaker into school

* displaying articles and reviews

* running a workshop

* asking a colleague to try out new materials

* reporting back on a course you have attended

Impetus for change may come from:

* staff movement

* preparing for inspection

* inconsistencies across the school

* an inspection report* a respected advisory teacher

* in-service training* new resources* the national curriculum

* poor test results* change in pupil roll* parents or governors

Guidelines for effective communication:

* teachers are more likely to respond if addressed personally than by memo

* teachers (and children) listen better if you rouse their interest

* information is valued more if it gives poweror status...

* ...or comes from an important source

* no one likes to let down a team: present information in ways that rely on actionby others

* listeners may bemore or less receptive according to the surroundings and time of day

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