The good hod guide

7th November 2003 at 00:00
Janet Murray learns how to be an effective head of department

You're a very good teacher. The students love your lessons, colleagues borrow your lesson plans and your subject knowledge is second to none. You think you're ready to lead a department, but as Brin Best and Will Thomas found out, it is not as easy as it looks.

"Leading a department is an exciting and influential role," says Mr Best, former head of geography at Settle high in Leeds who is now an education consultant, writer and editor.

"You have the power to shape how a subject is perceived at school, particularly by the pupils.

"But it's extremely demanding, combining teaching with managing a team of staff. You're a role model for the rest of the team, so you want to make sure you're a good practitioner who leads by example, one who also finds the time to plan ahead and move the department on."

Leading a team of up to six staff, often drawn from a range of curriculum areas, Mr Best focused on planning. He says: "It's important that everyone shares the same vision about where the department is going."

To ensure staff feel supported, he believes in clear systems for marking and discipline. He adds: "It's so important to make time to plan as a department. Keep the focus on teaching and learning."

He advises subject leaders to avoid getting bogged down with administrative tasks by asking support staff to help. Students can help to design and make classroom displays. Subject teachers can be asked to take responsibility for a specific area, which eases the pressure on the subject leader and provides opportunities for professional development. Good time management is also crucial. "Make the most of the time available to you," he adds. "I used to take a half hour to eat, then spent the rest of the lunch hour dealing with admin. When I was on duty, I'd take along a subject magazine to keep up with any new developments.

"Teaching is a tough job," he adds. "There can be times when your staff will need support with school or personal issues. One of my biggest challenges was dealing with staff who were too conscientious. As a head of department you need to reassure your staff that they are doing a good job, that they shouldn't be marking at 11pm every night and help them develop strategies to make their job easier."

His advice to subject leaders new to the role is not to try and change everything at once. "Keep it simple. Set yourself manageable targets within a clear time frame."

Will Thomas, a training consultant and performance coach, with four years'

experience as a subject leader, agrees: "Don't waste energy getting bogged down with little things. Put your energy into the things that are important. You need to be flexible - situations arise that demand your attention, but always keep in mind your long-term goals."

As head of science at South Bromsgrove high, an 11 to 18 mixed comprehensive in Worcestershire, he led a large team of 14 teachers and technicians. He had to produce creative solutions to make life easier. "I used to ask: 'how can we make it easy and still do it right?'. I looked at ways to reduce time spent on admin to free up time for teaching and learning."

He also tries to make better use of meetings. "Teachers need time to talk about what they're doing in the classroom," he says. "That's what gets them excited about the job. So instead of having a big agenda, I gave out a briefing sheet which staff agreed to read before the meeting. Subject meetings often start with admin, but we shared ideas first and left the admin until last."

He believes that subject leaders need to seek out a school-based coach or mentor: "Being a head of department can be a lonely job. Sometimes you can feel caught between the priorities of your subject team and the school management. You need to offload, to bounce around ideas with someone who is not part of your team. I had a deputy head as a mentor and we met weekly to discuss any concerns."

Traditionally, subject leaders have been appointed on the basis of good classroom practice and middle management training has been under-resourced.

Leading from the Middle, a new professional development programme from the National College for School Leadership, tries to fill this gap. The three-term programme offers face-to-face training, online activities and a school-based project. More than 2,200 teachers have already been recruited this year.

Mr Thomas welcomes the move: "Being a head of department is like running a small school. It's certainly not a job to be underestimated."

Head of Department's Pocketbook by Brin Best and Will Thomas, pound;6.99 College for School Leadership

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