It's official. Heads of departments make a difference, even though recent government reforms have made many middle managers feel disenchanted and disempowered. Not surprisingly, departments that function in schools with strong leadership from the senior management team find it easier to be effective than departments that do not have this experience and have to function in an institution where there are no shared goals, poor expectations and inconsistent practices.
But a recent study of departmental effectiveness in secondary schools has found that subject organisation, management and culture, as well as teamwork and the quality of teaching at departmental level were part of what distinguished the effective schools from the failing or struggling ones. When culture and ethos are mirrored at three different levels, school, department and classroom, their impact is far more powerful.
For this study, an "academically effective" school was deemed to be one where student progress was better than their attainment level on entry would have led one to predict. The researchers - Pam Sammons, Sally Thomas and Peter Mortimore from the Institute of Education in London - believe that we need to recognise the impact of departmental differences in secondary schools.
Consequently, one of the objectives of the research was to explore variations in academic effectiveness between departments in the same school. They tried to isolate the processes and characteristics in the schools which were consistently effective, ineffective or had very different results between different departments. Despite what some politicians would have us believe, school effectiveness is complex and complicated.
The project involved a quantitative analysis of school and departmental effects at GCSE level over a period of three years for 94 schools, detailed case studies of six schools and 30 departments, and the analysis of 264 questionnaires sent to headteachers and heads of mathematics and English. It found that in the vast majority of cases, secondary schools cannot be classified overall as either effective or ineffective, because in some schools, certain departments were more effective than others.
There were indications that some schools were more effective for particular groups of pupils than others (for example for some ethnic minority students or for socio-economically disadvantaged students). The case studies revealed that in some institutions, one or two key departments played a leading role for other departments, for example, by producing policy documents which were later adopted as whole school policy.
The study did not find clear evidence that specific factors such as choice of examination boards and grouping policies explained differences between departments, although an emphasis on examination entries and monitoring of performance (student and departments) was important.
According to the researchers, conflict and personality clashes were a source of significant problems in less effective departments and in the senior management teams of less effective schools. Shortages of qualified staff and high teacher turnover were problems in some ineffective departments. High levels of staff absence, low morale and low expectations were strong features of less effective schools and departments.
In such studies it is difficult to isolate cause and effect. For example, we do not know for certain whether tensions between teachers or staff absenteeism are less of an issue in effective departments because they are effective or whether the effectiveness is a result of the departmental harmony. In addition, there is the influence of "feedback loops". This term is used to describe how characteristics are inter-related. The student intake, for example, can affect teacher expectations. Teachers faced with middle-class pupils may overestimate their ability; this contributes to what and how they teach, and may result in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The consequence is that although research such as the academic effectiveness investigation is helpful in explaining in detail what happens in effective departments, it does not contain magic solutions as to how to become effective. None the less it provides a useful background for those institutions interested in more detailed self-evaluation and review. Heads of department aspiring to be more effective could do a lot worse than do the same as Mandy Watts (see article on opposite page) by undertaking a self-audit centred on these issues with their colleagues, and complement this data with a survey of the students views. The findings can be used as a basis of departmental and school-wide discussions, preferably followed by action plans implemented in a consistent and coherent way.
Further details of the study can be obtained from International School Effectiveness and Improvement Centre, (ISEIC), Institute of Education, University of London