Making the most of Subject Leaders in subject leadership

Making the Most of Subject Leaders

Subject leadership can be problematic in primary schools and academies. Core subject leadership typically attracts remuneration and may be within the remit of a senior leader. However, the relegation of science from the subject premier league is another story, especially since the demise of SATs at Key Stage 2.

The allocation of foundation subject leadership roles varies considerably. As such, it is worth considering how these subject leaders can maximise their impact given their limited time and often limited resources.

It can be the case that a teacher who takes on foundation subject leadership is well qualified in that particular subject, has a passion for that subject and is also willing to take on the leadership role based on it being ‘great experience and a step on the career ladder’ rather than anything as substantial as actual pay at the moment. They are willing and able to move the subject forward on this basis.

On the other hand, a subject leadership role may be assigned to a teacher because they were late arriving for the staff meeting when the roles were reorganised and no-one else wanted to take on music. They then have a nominal half-day per term supply cover to fulfil the role, a tiny budget and even less support and guidance, especially since the old LA subject advisors have just about become extinct.

So, bearing these differing starting points in mind, here are three suggestions for how subject leaders could contribute to school improvement. They were explored in more depth during the recent subject leader courses I have been leading across the country over the past two years.

How could subject leaders go about prioritising their work?

They need to be clear about the potential impact on outcomes. I often suggest to school leaders that they consider their work in terms of how things will be better for a hypothetical (or real) child as a result of any work. And how will they know this? This can help focus the planning, the monitoring and the evaluation of any project or area of improvement. When faced with a long list of possible things to do, prioritising the use of precious time based on what is likely to make a real difference to outcomes can help a subject leader make an informed decision between opening the post full of catalogues or organising a quick work scrutiny.

It is also vital that subject leaders are aware of whole-school priorities. For example, RAISE and on-entry data are often shared with maths and English subject leaders, but isn’t it important for the geography coordinator to know the big picture about standards and progress in basic skills, as children will be applying these in their subject?

How can subject leaders keep up to date with innovation and find good ideas?

One problem for subject leaders is finding out where good ideas and best practices exist. Local authorities typically used to provide regular meetings led by subject advisors to share this information, which could then be disseminated back in schools. However, this model is now extremely rare. Ofsted provides a source of useful information, including case studies, here. This features a page of publications and reports for each subject, including non-statutory subjects.

And this page provides similar information for Early Years leaders and practitioners.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out Focus Education’s Subject Leadership Range, designed to help subject leaders in primary schools with their self-evaluation against the National Curriculum requirements and key questions for subject leaders to consider.

Some headteachers and principals now ask subject leaders to check their relevant page at least once a term and feed back to staff on any best practices. Often, this can be a ‘pat on the back’ opportunity when leaders realise their existing practice is akin to that recognised as being effective by Ofsted. But it can also provide ideas for future improvements and give an idea of a national benchmark. A further suggestion is to ensure subject leaders join the relevant subject association.

Developing thorough subject knowledge across the whole school

The third proposal is to ensure our subject leaders develop a thorough knowledge of their subject curriculum across the whole school. This may sound obvious, but in my experience, not all foundation subject leaders have that complete overview across a setting. I remember meeting a geography subject leader who was also a Year 5 teacher in a primary school. She was knowledgeable about various aspects of the role regarding Key Stage 2. Once we got onto Key Stage 1, she was slightly out of her comfort zone, but it was when I mentioned the Reception classes that she visibly blanched. The gist of her response was that they didn’t do geography in the Early Years…

With the National Curriculum having had time to bed in, it is vital that foundation subject leaders see the ‘big picture’ of what children will study and learn as they progress through the school from starting points. This may mean having conversations with colleagues from all key stages about what the curriculum looks like and looking at planning and mapping this against the relevant programmes of study. A lot can be gained from looking at samples of children’s work across the age range to plot the progression. As the importance of work scrutiny develops in all settings as a key source of information on children’s progress and the impact of teaching over time, let’s not forget how much our subject leaders can benefit from being involved in the same process, even if it may be from smaller samples or over longer time periods to accommodate the constraints of time they have for the role.

Of course, there are so many other key aspects to the role, but taking these three ideas as a starting point will hopefully enable any foundation subject leader to make a greater contribution to any setting and ensure the building blocks for successful subject leadership are in place.

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For more information on subject leadership, keep an eye on the Focus Education blog, or get in touch with the Focus Education office on 01457 821 818.

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