Anat Arkin discovers that personalities can be important in leading a high-achieving and popular subject department. When Mark Kenny joined Bedminster Down School five years ago as head of English after taking a year off to travel the world, he found a faculty ready for change. The National Curriculum had just come on stream and an inspection by the local education authority's advisory team had highlighted the faculty's strengths and weaknesses.
"Our strengths included an established, motivated team of teachers who realised that change was necessary," says Mr Kenny. The weaknesses included inadequate formal forward planning.
In his early days at the school he used this mandate for change to define departmental roles more clearly and delegate some area of responsibility to each member of his seven-strong team. He also tightened up faculty procedures and put more emphasis on planning. Before his arrival very little had been written down. But with the National Curriculum dictating that schools consider their teaching from the point of view of pupils' entitlement, the English faculty began using staff development time to compare pupils' actual learning experiences with those they were entitled to.
Out of this process came detailed schemes of work for each year group, which were incorporated into a faculty booklet. The booklet, which the faculty revises every year, includes team members' job descriptions, guidelines on record-keeping and assessment, and a robust defence of mixed-ability English teaching.
Jane Davies, who has taught at the school for 15 years and is currently acting deputy head of English, says there was little resistance to the changes that the booklet formalises. Describing Mark Kenny as forceful and efficient, she says: "Mark knows where he wants the faculty to go but every issue is discussed. There is no bulldozing."
A non-bulldozing, collegiate style of management is one of the features of successful school departments identified in research by Alma Harris of the Open University School of Education and Ian Jamieson and Jen Russ of the University of Bath Centre for School Improvement (see box left). The study focused on six subject departments in south Bristol schools that were adding significantly more to pupils' achievements than might have been expected from their intake. It found that members of these departments tended to have a clear common vision of the subject they were teaching and they constantly shared professional information.
Bedminster Down's English faculty took part in the study. Staff attend weekly meetings to share information, plan and review their work (the school's other faculties do not meet as often).
The faculty differs from the rest of the school in other ways. It has its own system of annual staff performance reviews, separate from the school's appraisal system. It has also developed distinctive methods of marking and assessing pupils' work, agreeing, for instance, not to grade work in Years 7 and 8 because this can distract from teachers' comments.
Another feature is an emphasis on record-keeping, with pupil portfolios and reading logs used to track their progress in English throughout their time in the school.
Although the English faculty has developed its own methods, Mark Kenny says it has been supported by the school's senior management. "The ethic that the head has had of allowing teams to grow because he trusted their professionalism is exactly the structure that we have thrived on," he explains.
The faculty's success can be seen in the increase in pupils taking English in the school's small Sixth Form. There were only three or four taking the subject at A-level when Mark Kenny arrived, but 23 started the course the following year. For a comprehensive that sends very few of its pupils to university, it is striking that one of last year's Upper Sixth is now reading English at university and two others are taking the subject as part of mixed degree courses.
However, a school department does not necessarily need a new broom to be effective. Peter Green has been head of maths at St Bernadette Roman Catholic School in Bristol since 1977. At the time, expectations of pupils were already high in the maths department, another of the six which took part in the Open UniversityUniversity of Bath research project.
In the time Mr Green has been at the school, there has never been any serious under-achievement in maths, though the last few years have been the department's best, with the percentage of pupils passing GCSE with grades A-C rising from 28.6 per cent in 1992 to 35.6 per cent in 1994. Exam results in the school as a whole have also been improving and, with 40 per cent of pupils gaining five GCSE grades A-C in 1994, they compare favourably with most other schools in south Bristol.
While Peter Green attributes much of his department's success to the good discipline and strong work ethic that pervades the school, he also emphasises the importance of having a group of highly-experienced maths teachers. Most have been at the school for many years and get on well with pupils and each other - though their teaching styles vary.
"There are some teachers who are very traditional-minded and others who sit their pupils in groups," says Mr Green. "But there is strong mutual respect in the department... People can be very forthright at meetings but we never have major disagreements philosophically or otherwise so there does seem to be some unity."
As in Bedminster Down's English faculty, the big decisions about maths teaching at St Bernadette school are made collectively, often during "non-disruptive Inset" when the department is off the timetable for an hour a week. Recently the maths team used this time to choose work from a number of commercially-produced schemes covering the latest changes to the maths curriculum.
Like several other effective departments in the research study, St Bernadette's maths team chose schemes that sub-divide work into small units. Each unit takes just over a week, and end-of-unit assessments help motivate pupils by giving them achievable, short-term goals. These frequent assessments come on top of whole-school exams for each year group and at least four "assessments of effort" a year.
One group of pupils told The TES that the feature that sets the maths department most clearly apart from the rest of the school is its policy of dividing them into small sets. "It means you can work to your own ability and you are not afraid to ask questions," said one Year 10 pupil.
They all seemed to enjoy the department's strong emphasis on practical investigative maths and agreed that relations with teachers were good.
Though his style is perhaps more low-keyed than Mark Kenny's, Peter Green's leadership has clearly played a key part in the success of the maths department and its popularity with pupils.
"It's fair to say that the style of the department reflects Peter's personal style," says his deputy, Leighton Jenkins. "He's on the ball, knows what's happening and at the same time has a very calm approach to things."