First the Government introduced a qualification for headteachers. Now plans are about to be announced for a professional certificate for subject leaders. Kate Myers reports on the crucial role that heads of department play in improving schools.
The English department at Mill Hill County School in Barnet, has a concise and explicit five-year plan to raise achievement in its subject. Many things have changed since Mandy Watts arrived at the school as a temporary head of department six years ago, and found several split classes and only a small minority of specialists among the 14 staff teaching English. She had a clear vision of what an English department should be and, once her appointment was made permanent, set about achieving it.
She convinced the headteacher of the importance of recruiting and retaining high-calibre English specialists and changed the interviewing system to include an opportunity to observe candidates teach. (On one occasion, Mandy sent short-listed candidates details of who and what they were to teach. On the day of interview, she divided her top-stream Year 10 class into four groups in the hall and watched the candidates going through their pedagogical paces.) At the same time, non-specialists already in the department were coached, coaxed and cajoled so that the students did not lose out.
After one or two false starts the department now consists of a tightly knit and enthusiastic group of eight specialists. They clearly spend a lot of time together, planning writing and considering the art and science of what happens in the classroom.
Mandy has taken advantage of the new clause in the recent pay and conditions document which allows teachers to be paid for working at weekends; twice the department has spent a Saturday at a local hotel reviewing and revising schemes of work. Between them, these have been written for each year group.
The schemes of work are specific and detailed. As well as curriculum content and activities, they include suggested teaching styles; advice on groupings, for example when groups should be single-sex and when mixed; and the amount of whole class exposition at the beginning and end of each lesson.
The teachers I spoke to did not feel restrained by this system and were clear that having a common framework to which they have all contributed, benefits them and the students while still allowing room for individual creativity. If work submitted does not come up to standard, rather than blame the students, the team tend to beself-critical.
Each half term department meetings are set aside to discuss teaching and learning. One such discussion around the concern that some students did not contribute to whole-class oral work, resulted in a policy of naming students to answer questions rather than relying on vociferous volunteers.
Staff appreciate the efficient way the department is managed. Jessica Segal a newly qualified teacher is stunned by how well run and smooth the department is. Comparing her experience to that of friends in other schools who are left to fend for themselves, she feels her colleagues are supportive and not sitting in judgement on her.
Marking pupils' work is considered to be enormously important. Students receive immediate and detailed feedback on their work which seems to be much appreciated. "My English teacher is very efficient. She makes students feel confident. We usually do a first draft and get an A4 sheet back, marked for the next lesson. Its so impressive and it's marked in pencil so it doesn't ruin your work," said Robyn Minogue, a year 11 pupil. Cemile Kalkan from the same group added "It's incredible. We don't know how she does it but it makes me feel good to see how much effort she's put in."
Although the department's examination results have improved - 25 per cent more students achieved GCSE grades A to C in 1996 (79 per cent) than did in 1994 - the department is by no means complacent and its plans include more work on target setting.
An important factor is that the department does not operate in isolation; it influences and affects whole-school issues. Policies the department has developed on marking, homework and spelling have been adapted for general use and then adopted as whole-school policies.
The English department works closely with other colleagues, particularly Jan Buoy the special needs co-ordinator. Both she and Mandy Watts believe that a greater involvement of students in the learning process increases their motivation and is an important starting point for change. With the encouragement of Louise James, the deputy headteacher, they undertook a student survey to help them review key stage 4 education.
Students answered questions about their preferred teaching and learning styles, their strengths and weaknesses, homework, whether the work was appropriate for their level or too easy or difficult, whether they were affected by the imbalance of boys to girls and what further support they wanted to help them get the best GCSE grades possible.
The students reacted verypositively to this venture. "We were pleased to be getting a say," said one student. "We felt some things could be improved and hoped someone would read itand obviously they did." Their responses included 67 per cent saying they were aware of areas which needed improvement in each subject but 90 per cent also said they were not aware of their strengths. The students wanted more opportunities to discuss their progress one-to-one with their teachers, preferably before parents evenings.
They listed oral work, creative essay writing, role-play, practical work in science, group work, problem-solving, design and project work as their favourite activities in class; silent work, dictation and note-taking were their least favourite activities.
The students wanted teachers to use a range of teaching styles and were quite specific about their preferred combination: teacher talk for a short time, with some note-taking, followed by group work in friendship groups of between three and five, concluding in some form of individual work. Students preferred to be kept on task and for lessons to be tightly structured.
They stated that their main problem in completing assignments was understanding fully what was required of them. They liked receiving feedback from essay plans and preferred to complete work in stages with specific targets at each stage. Lack of suggestions as to how work could improve, caused frustration for some.
These results have contributed to a significant shift in the school's attempt to focus on issues of teaching and learning. An impending inspection by the Office for Standards in Education next year has provided the necessary urgency and helped focus everyone's attention on these topics.
Kate Myers is an associate director of the International School Effectiveness and Improvement Centre at London University's Institute of Education.