What should we expect of a primary subject leader?
Ofsted’s new-found interest in the wider curriculum has suddenly brought this question into sharp focus.
On the one hand, it is encouraging to see Ofsted starting to value a broad and balanced curriculum. For years inspectors have shown very little interest in subjects beyond reading, writing and maths and we have all seen the narrowing effect this has had on the curriculum.
However, on the other, the inspectorate shouldn’t underestimate just how significant a change this new approach represents. We have heard the new framework described as "evolution not revolution", but from a primary subject leader’s perspective, the change is already starting to feel pretty seismic.
Under previous frameworks, most subject leaders were largely ignored by inspectors. As a teacher in charge of PE, DT, art or music, you could be pretty confident that inspectors wouldn’t have the time or inclination to trouble you too much during an inspection. With the introduction of curriculum "deep dives", we are seeing this already beginning to change. Subject leaders who may only be a year or so into teaching are now finding themselves sat opposite an inspector being quizzed about "intent, implementation and impact".
Not only is it vital that inspectors recognise how significant a change this is for these professionals, they also need to be cognizant of the considerable challenges that most subject leaders face, especially those working in primary schools.
Ofsted and curriculum
For most primary teachers, the reality is that subject leadership is a bolt-on to their day-to-day classroom responsibilities, and very few get much in the way of release time to carry out their leadership role. The staffing structure and budget of your average primary school simply don’t allow for the DT or art manager to have regular release time to lead their subject.
Inspectors also need to be mindful that, due to the size of most primary schools, it is commonplace for teachers to be leading multiple subjects. This isn’t something that just happens in a small minority of particularly small schools – it is common. Even in a standard single-form entry primary school with around 200 pupils, there are just too many subjects and not enough teachers. As such, an inspector asking to meet with the history, geography and science subject leaders could find themselves spending a lot of time in the same person’s company during the course of the day. The smaller the school, the greater this challenge becomes.
Unlike becoming a head of department in a secondary school, subject leadership in a primary school tends not to be something you aspire to a few years into your career once you’ve proved yourself in the classroom. In most cases, it gets foisted upon you whether you like it or not. This usually happens in your second full year of teaching when most are still getting to grips with what it means to be an effective teacher.
Every teacher will have their own story to tell about how they were given their first subject to lead. More often than not, you simply inherit whichever subject has been left unclaimed. Primary subject leaders are rarely subject specialists and, as such, it takes some time to get to grips with the subject you have been given. The decimation of many local authorities means that subject-specific training can be increasingly hard to come by, too.
Despite this, I actually have no issue with Ofsted wanting to look at a school’s broader curriculum. In fact, I can see that in the long run this has the potential to do a lot of good, especially if it encourages schools to spend more time developing their wider curriculum and invest in their subject leaders. However, it is vital that inspectors are realistic and reasonable in their approach, especially in this first year of a new framework.
Inspectors must also remember that it is not just the grade a school receives at the end of an inspection that matters but the experience of the inspection itself. Handled well, these deep dives could actually act as an opportunity for professional development, giving these leaders a clear idea of what they need to do to develop their subject in the future. However, if they are handled badly, we could see relatively new leaders left feeling frustrated and demoralised.
My hope is that the inspectors will be acutely aware not just of how much expectations have changed since the last framework but also of how challenging the role of a subject leader can be.
Inspectors will always have high expectations, and rightly so, but when it comes to subject leadership they need to remember to be realistic, too.
James Bowen is director of policy at the NAHT headteachers' union and director of the NAHT Edge union for middle leaders