Leaders lost in the cupboard

28th January 2005 at 00:00
Anat Arkin meets the head who decided subject co-ordinators needed to do more than the housekeeping jobs

Name: Ladygrove Park, Didcot, Oxfordshire

School type:3-11 primary

Staff: 14 full-time equivalent

Pupils on roll: 400

Improved results: Percentage of pupils at KS2 level 4. In 2001:English, 84%; maths, 84%, science, 95%. In 2004: 96%, 89%, 100% respectively

A subject leader's role is meant to be about providing professional leadership and raising standards of teaching and learning in their patch.

But, despite the national workload agreement, many primary school subject leaders - or co-ordinators - still do not have the time to do much more than manage resources.

As headteacher David Burrows puts it, their job often boils down to "tidying the cupboard". His school, Ladygrove Park primary in Didcot, Oxfordshire, has come up with a radical solution to this problem, scrapping the co-ordinators' role and giving teams of teachers shared responsibility for subjects.

There are three teams, all representing staff from key stages 1 and 2, and two also including teachers from the foundation stage. This broad membership gives the teams credibility and is proving to be a great strength, says Mr Burrows.

"When they make decisions about what to do there has been consultation right from the beginning. So the ideas come from a more democratic base."

Ladygrove Park opened in 1999 with 150 pupils, and now has almost 400. Mr Burrows arrived at this team approach while training for Investors in People status, where he came across the idea of coaching as a way of improving staff performance.

Since he knew that most subject leaders disliked monitoring and judging colleagues, the mutually-supportive dialogue implied in the term "coaching" looked like a good alternative. When the chance to join the National College for School Leadership's research associate programme came along, he decided to study the role of subject leader as coach.

But when Mr Burrows started looking for schools where subject leaders acted as coaches, he could not find any. "The question was, if they don't coach, what do they do? Do they just tidy the cupboard?"

The search for an answer became the focus of his research, which involved visits to six primary schools of varying sizes. Each offered ideas for developing the role of subject leaders.

Some made the development of these teachers a theme of their school improvement plans, while others updated job descriptions to make the responsibilities of the role more explicit. Schools also gave subject leaders training in action planning, data analysis, communication and classroom observation techniques.

But it was those using some form of teamwork that provided the inspiration for the work that Ladygrove Park has been doing since September. David Burrows co-ordinates the curriculum team responsible for the arts, humanities and PE, while his assistant heads lead the other two teams. One, the "core team", oversees English, maths and personal, social and health education, and the other looks after science, information and communications technology and design and technology.

The teams have their own budgets and decide how to prioritise between their subjects. Staff meeting times, previously taken up mostly with housekeeping matters, are now often used to develop the subjects teams are responsible for, though they can negotiate further non-contact time if they need it.

"Replacing staff meetings with team ones means that some of the work could get done more quickly because there is actually time within the school day for it to be done," says Mr Burrows.

The school has also begun paying teaching assistants overtime to audit, order and generally sort out resources. That is clearly more cost-effective than giving subject co-ordinators non-contact time to do this.

Teamworking also helps teachers to gain expertise, strengthens links between the key stages and means that curriculum development work is less likely to stall if members of staff move on.

But Mr Burrows points out that a smaller primary school would not have enough staff to set up such teams. Schools that had traditionally paid management allowances to subject co-ordinators might also find it hard to replace them with teams.

The school is planning to review its new approach at the end of this academic year. If it becomes a permanent fixture, it could influence the way the governing body operates.

Individual governors are already responsible for particular subject areas, and their work could be tied in with that of the curriculum teams.

Meanwhile, teachers seem to value being able to share their workload.

"Overall the new system is an improvement because you are working with other people and can draw on their experience," says Helen Crolla, who used to be the subject leader for ICT.

But she also points to a downside. "There is a sense that you are not leading and initiating things as a subject leader, so in the long term you wouldn't have that recognition and kudos to show a future employer."

Tidying the cupboard? The role of subject leaders in primary schools is available at www.ncsl.org.ukresearchassociates

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