Darren Gelder, Executive Head of the Grace Academy, provides some practical advice for those taking on a departmental leadership role.
For ambitious teachers, there comes a time, sooner or later when you feel ready for the challenge of management. For some it is the belief that they can do it better, for others an opportunity that arises and the role thrust upon them and for a few it comes as a natural, time-based transition.
Middle leadership or head of department is not a task that should be taken lightly, indeed looking back now as an executive principal it was probably one of the hardest roles to undertake. This is because of the way that the role pulls you. You don’t have the benefit or privilege of distancing yourself from your decisions or accountability as some senior roles do. You are working with people who in the main are likely to be friends, whose BBQ you will attend and whose wedding you may be invited to. Holding them to account and challenging them if needed can be a difficult thing to do as it will impact on your relationship with them, possibly ever after.
Heads of department are held to account by the senior team for everything from outcomes to uniform, to parental complaints and wall displays. The plates that you need to spin are wide ranging. However it is also one of the most rewarding roles and one that will give you the satisfaction not felt elsewhere in teaching. You can have such a direct impact on the quality of teaching and learning in your area. The progress of students is directly linked with your performance as an effective head of department.
As a new head of department there is an important choice to be made: to be Head of Business Studies or Economics by name badge only or to roll your sleeves up and try to be a truly ‘effective’ leader of your team. There is a huge difference.
How to be effective?
Sadly, as any successful HoD will tell you, there is no set ‘to-do list’ to tick off here. Different things will require your attention at different times. However there are some key attributes that I would suggest every Head of Business/Economics or Accounts needs to have. I have collected these snippets of info after many years training, working with and being a middle leader.
In my opinion, the first question to ask in understanding the role of a head of department is simple. What should I do as a middle leader. – this requires a clear understanding of the difference between responsibility and accountability. Ask yourself:
• As a HoD what are you responsible for?
• As a HoD what are you accountable for?
You need to have a clear distinction between the two and focus on both.
NPQML is the government recommended route to middle leadership recognition. Its two compulsory units include the following:
Learn how to develop, improve and sustain high-quality teaching within a team and identify strategies to help close gaps in attainment. As part of this module, you’ll learn:
the principles, models and practice of effective teaching and learning
how to identify outstanding teaching and learning
• leadership strategies to influence and improve the quality of teaching
• leadership and management strategies for achieving high standards of pupil behaviour
• how to analyse and use performance data
• how to achieve and maintain high-quality subject specialisms within the team
Managing systems and processes
Learn how to implement whole-school policies with your team in a systematic and consistent way. As part of this module, you’ll learn about:
• the principles, theories and models of leadership
• effective management structures, systems and processes
• managing resources, including financial management
• how to manage teacher appraisals and staff performance
• behaviour management and pupil attendance
• health and safety legislation, including child protection
Core purpose of the subject leader
Whilst middle leadership is recognised by almost every school leader as critical to a school’s performance and progress there is very little about what standards are needed. The most useful I have found was written a decade ago! It does include some valuable guidance. It identifies the core purpose as being:
To support professional leadership and management for a subject to secure high quality teaching, effective use of resources and improved standards of learning and achievement for all pupils.
A subject leader provides leadership and direction for the subject and ensures that it is managed and organised to meet the aims of the objectives of the school and the subject
Subject leaders evaluate the effectiveness of teaching and learning, the subject curriculum and progress towards targets for pupils and staff to inform priorities and targets for the subject
Subject leaders’ authority comes not from their position but their competence as teachers and their subject knowledge
For the more academic research orientated reader I would suggest a well referenced publication is the NCSL paper on middle leadership
It is worth noting that this excellent piece was written in 2003 and very little on a formal basis has been written since that focuses directly on the role and purpose of middle leader in schools/academies. To any members of the ALT reading this I would advise be clear about what you want from a middle leader and allow them to develop their own approach to getting there.
The issue that I found, and I’m sure is shared by many new HoDs, is that the challenges are multiplied if the department is smaller, as is the case with many business and economics departments. In which case I would also suggest either establishing or joining a local network of other departmental heads – a problem shared etc. It works as a support group and a sounding board. What you quickly realise is that for 90% of the time we are chasing the same goal and dealing with the same challenges. If there isn’t one, create one, physical or virtual.
Data Data data
There is no escaping it in the modern education system. You and your team must know your data. Where are we now, where are we going and how do we get there are key questions that data will help to answer. Data also allows your ALT to ask questions and they tend to be the; what and why questions.
• What are you expecting?
• Why are you doing what you do the way you do?
• Why are students under/over performing?
• Why are PP boys out performing PP girls?
Conversely you can use the data to support your argument. Detail such as previous attainment trends, sub co-hort data all add a level of understanding to any discussion . If you are not a natural data geek find someone in the school who is and remember the focus now is progress not attainment.
The quality of teaching
This is always a tough one and links directly with the difference between responsibility and accountability. You cannot really be responsible for someone else’s performance. What you need to be able to show is that you have identified and addressed any issues. As ever I would also suggest that you seek advice and guidance from the SLT member responsible for teaching and learning.
Things to consider are:
• How well does the teaching meet the needs of students based on their starting points?
• The suitability and rigour of assessment in planning learning and monitoring the learners’ progress
• Always cross reference with the Ofsted criteria for some back up but don’t forget we are working rightly or wrongly in an outcomes based environment.
The tough conversations
I would imagine that at some time or other, it may well have been at the interview, you will have come across the scenario
So what happens when a member of your team isn’t performing as you would expect – what do you do?
Your initial response will be to find out if there is a problem or a barrier and put a plan in place to support. You already know what the next question will be:
So after the support offered there is still no improvement what do you do now?
This is a tough one for the reasons I spoke of earlier. This is not Wall Street and you are not out to destroy people’s self-respect and confidence. This does however balance with the need to ensure that learners are taught as well as they can be. I’m afraid there is no easy answer . As a HoD you will need to deal with this for the sake of the other teachers in the department, yourself and importantly the learners. It is easy to avoid dealing with it and ignore it. The sooner you have the tough conversation the better things that are small problems or barriers can be sorted. In my experience, if left, they grow and grow.
As I mentioned at the start, it is the most rewarding and the most challenging role a teacher will do, sometimes at the same time.