Once upon a time, all you needed to be a good head of department or subject co-ordinator was to know your subject inside out. But the drive for higher standards and better run schools over the past few years has changed the role. The department head is now seen as a middle manager responsibl e for a team.
The Teacher Training Agency recognised this with proposals for a new qualification for subject leaders announced a year ago. Consultation on the new National Qualification for Subject Leaders (NQSL) was completed last February and development work on it was supposed to be underway by now for a launch next September.
But plans for the qualification were put on hold after the general election despite reports from the Office for Standards in Education last year which said the state of subject leadership in secondary schools was unsatisfactory.
A further report this year concluded that about one in five secondary schools had weaknesses in middle management. Even in schools which where generally well-led and effectively managed, it said, it was rare to find consistently good practice in all subject departments. Too many heads of department took the narrow view that they were responsible for managing resources rather than people, yet the management role of the subject head of department was crucial if the quality of teaching was to be good.
Leeds Metropolitan University has piloted a course for subject leaders based on the criteria of what makes a good subject leader as detailed by the TTA last November. These "standards" have never been officially launched, but about 5,500 copies were sent to schools, local education authorities and colleges. They represent the first major attempt to define the role of the subject leader, setting out in its 11-pages the range of professional knowledge and understanding, skills and attributes needed.
The subject leader's purpose, it says, is to "provide leadership and direction for the subject and ensure that it is managed and organised to meet school and subject aims and objectives. "
Gary Holmes, head of the School of Professional Education and Development at Leeds Metropolitan says: "The old grammar school mentality from 30 years ago was that if you knew your subject you would make a good head of department. Subject competence is a prerequisite for raising standards of achievement, but the skills of good communication, being able to motivate and lead a team are also essential."
Much of the inspiration for the work on standards for subject leaders and co-ordinators in primary schools came from OFSTED. It was clear, the OFSTED report said, that many heads of department needed training before they could be fully effective, and work on the new qualification now seems to be getting underway again.
Steve Harrison, responsible for the new qualification at the TTA, sees the standards for subject leaders as a way of helping them focus on what they need to carry out the role. In the past, the teacher being promoted relied mainly on helpful advice from the head or other staff. "We wanted to enable subject leaders to be able to identify their professional development needs more clearly and enable them to set targets for things they might need to enhance pupils' achievement," he says.
Leadership figures strongly in the rationale behind the standards, as it does in other work by the TTA including the new national professional qualification for headteachers. Key management thinkers the agency turned to before drawing up the standards included John Adair, the pioneering British management guru who highlighted the concept of leadership and was the first to argue that it can be taught. The TTA wanted to "capture the leadership qualities which make an individual effective in the role, " says Mr Harrison.
The agency also wanted to help subject leaders when it comes to target setting - to be a legal requirement for all schools next year - and appraisal. The standards will give subject leaders a solid foundation on which to plan the staff in their department. Mr Harrison also sees the standards as vital in improving the image of teachers. "We need to be better at explaining what we do. There's been a huge amount of change in schools towards a clearer common purpose about pupils' achievement, and these standards represent one more stage in the process. It's about sharing good practice and experience of what good practice means which as a profession we haven't been very clear about."
At Leeds, the course for subject leaders piloted last year is now included as a unit in the university's MSc in education degree. The standards for subject leaders, says Mr Holmes, were well articulated and extremely useful. But they have, he says, come in for some criticism: "There are some academics who question the underlying rationale for being non-theoretical. But at least we've got something to work on and it can be refined as we go on. They don't have the kind of rationale a master's degree would have, but they're not supposed to be a master's degree."
The standards have also underpinned a course for subject leaders being planned as part of a #163;1.8 million management training project at Waltham Forest in east London.
Scilla Furey, acting principal adviser at the borough, sees the emphasis on interpersonal skills as central. "Subject leaders have shied away form taking a management role in relation to their colleagues," she says. "They tend to busy themselves with resources because they don't want to seem critical. But if they are really going to raise standards they need to get much closer to what's going on in the classroom. They know what they need to do, but it's a question of being able to manage people confidently."