Why subject leaders are a mighty force

22nd May 2015 at 01:00
With the right support, they can have a deep impact on a school

the call from the Ofsted inspectorate usually arrives by Wednesday lunchtime, meaning England's headteachers generally feel safe on a Thursday morning. So, as I skipped merrily around school dressed as the Queen of Hearts on World Book Day, the news that a one-day maths inspection was imminent came as a shock. By coincidence, I had recently talked to my staff about the reintroduction of subject inspections - and now we had a week to get ready for one.

Despite the anxieties that follow the announcement of a visit from the inspectors, I felt pretty confident. Over the previous 18 months we had invested time in developing and supporting subject leadership at the school. As a result, I had absolute faith that my maths leader would demonstrate her knowledge of the quality of teaching and learning in the subject, and the impact her leadership had made on this.

Good subject leadership is vital in primary schools, yet it's an area that is often overlooked. Here's how to ensure the role receives the respect and support it deserves.

Give clear guidance

In September 2013, we created a subject leader's handbook to establish a clear set of expectations. Gone was the notion of managing a few resources, tidying the cupboard and attending the odd local authority course. Instead, the word "leader" gained purpose. Leadership files were streamlined and ongoing subject portfolios adapted to showcase what was working well in the school, as well as highlighting any gaps. We set out an annual cycle of key leadership tasks, too. Meanwhile, our deputy headteacher conducted leadership coaching.

Remember, knowledge is powerful

Our subject leaders are immersed in a cycle of monitoring, self-assessment and action. This has been made possible only with the gift of time. They each have half a day every term to get out of the classroom and carry out essential monitoring of their subject: pupil interviews to gauge attitudes to learning and the appropriateness of the curriculum; work sampling to ensure that expectations are being met; planning scrutiny, where appropriate, to make sure continuity and progression are evident; learning observations to evaluate pupils' responses; and data analysis to see which of the key skills for their subject are a cause for concern, or which pupil groups are falling behind.

Therefore, our subject leaders are in a position each spring to write an informed evaluation report against the latest Ofsted framework and to plan strategically. In addition, there is an expectation that leaders will keep up to date with the latest thinking and developments in their area - they need to be experts for their colleagues and to ensure that our approach is fresh and forward-thinking. And each leader is given "Golden Days" for CPD, to use as they see fit.

Ensure an impact

Revise your action plan to focus all subject leaders on driving a few key strategic issues forward - such as tackling assessment without levels or ensuring quality feedback - rather than pulling in different directions with their own agendas. My maths leader was able to provide the inspector with a detailed "leadership journey", setting out actions taken over the previous 18 months, the impact and any follow-up measures. All this linked to the strategic plan.

The role of subject link governor, with termly reports around key questions, dovetails well. Subject leaders have attended governor committees and senior leadership meetings, in order to share progress against their action plans and the impact they are having.

Striking the balance between what is "fed back" and what "feeds in" is key when there are so many subject leaders, because colleagues can feel overwhelmed with advice. Last year our staff agreed a set of non-negotiables for an outstanding curriculum; it is the role of each subject leader, through their monitoring, to make sure this is being delivered.

Provide support

When it comes to subject leadership, the most precious commodity is time. There are so many competing pressures on teachers that we made a decision to invest financially to ensure children receive the outstanding curriculum they deserve.

For me, the greatest impact comes when staff are released to work together and have prolonged professional conversations about what great teaching and learning look like. For example, we have used some of our sports funding to allow our PE leader to collaborate with colleagues, helping them with their planning, modelling great practice and giving feedback on where they can strengthen their development.

The impact on the quality of learning is at its greatest when subject leaders run CPD, asking their fellow teachers to trial new approaches or coaching them through new curriculum content.

Sam Hunter is headteacher of Hiltingbury Junior School in Hampshire

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