Becoming a highly effective English subject leader: top tips

    Published: 14 September 2020

    As we begin a new academic year amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic, Theresa Clements and Michael Gray, English Advisers and course leaders for ‘Becoming a Highly Effective English Subject Leader’ have been looking at some top tips to support subject leaders to be successful this academic year.

    With September brings the return to school: new books, clean uniform, sharp pencils. The excitement and buzz coming from being back in school (which hasn’t run as normal since March) is tangible this year. However, this year in particular, September could bring a headache for subject leaders who may be looking at their half-finished action plans from last year and wondering where to start now – amongst the backdrop of a pandemic, possible local lockdowns and working out what the priorities should be when, inevitably, alterations have had to be made to the curriculum to accelerate the progress of children who may not have had any thorough, formal schooling since March. With all this in mind, we bring you our ten top tips which could guide and support you to be a successful subject leader this year.


    Important notice


    Don’t try to fix everything at once!

    You may feel that everything needs sorting at once - especially this year - but it is so much better to do one thing really well and to be able to sustain the change than to scrape the surfaces of many things and find nothing embeds. On our subject leader training we ask colleagues to identify the one thing they want to see a change in over the year, and then weave that through everything they do, from action-planning to coaching.

    Ensure you are happy that you are seeing change in a key aspect, that this is across the board, well-embedded, well-evidenced and that this will be sustainable. The changes you see will improve that area of practice but also there will be transferable benefits such as increased reflectiveness, openness, willingness to change, and aspects of pedagogy that can also be applied in other areas or subjects. You will also get people on board if they feel they are not having millions of demands made of them by the one subject leader… they will more likely want to ‘get on your bus’ and come with you!

    Do some ‘quick-win’ monitoring activities

    A thorough trawl of pupil books or full-on lesson observations are unlikely to be practical currently, but you can make targeted use of your time. Learning Walks have the potential to be a great ‘3-in-1’ way of getting a flavour of lessons, having a quick flick through some books and talking to the children about their learning. There will be times when you need to share difficult messages – make this one of those times when your approach can be less judgemental and more developmental. It helps everyone feel more relaxed, respected and able to go about their usual brilliant business. Subject leaders often comment on how freeing this form of monitoring can be, and are supported throughout the course to use the proformas within our PA+ website.


    Shoe and chalk arrow on pavement


    Don’t forget to evaluate!

    Sounds obvious, but one of the big benefits of taking a lighter-touch approach to monitoring, as described above, is that it tends to leave you with more time to think about the ‘so what’ and the ‘what next’. You want the monitoring activity to serve its purpose of helping you to find out the strengths and improvements in the aspect you’re developing – and we can often overlook these – and the bits that could be further developed and how you know. Make sure you then leave time to think about the ‘what next’. Precisely what do you need to do next, with whom and when will you do it? That is the crucial part in terms of taking your subject forward. Would someone benefit from support with planning as differentiation will be even more challenging this year? Invest time in plotting these into calendars, annotating your action plan and you will really start to feel on top of things.

    Walk the walk

    Lead by example.  If you are asking colleagues to make a change to their practice (eg adopt a new strategy) make sure you do it first. Truly know what it is that you are asking your colleague(s) to take on.  Anticipate the challenges and be clear on the benefits. The best next step is to ‘scale it up’, eg ask a trusted colleague or two to try it out for a period of time, and feed back to you warts and all. What needed tweaking to suit their style? Which tweaks affected impact and in what ways? What degree of licence/autonomy can be taken when implementing the strategy?

    After this, and with a wealth of pros and cons, feedback and evaluation you’ll have considered and acted on, you are in a strong position to know how to support colleagues with implementing it. See the Education Endowment Foundation website for more on this process of ‘scaling up’ before ‘rolling out’.

    Be prepared to switch between support and challenge

    Yes, we want to support our colleagues (who are often our friends too), but we must remember we have a job to do. We are primarily there for the children, and if you ask any colleague who maybe feels resistant to a change why they are there, they should agree. Some things can help smooth the way for challenge though, as point 4 begins to suggest. Other ways to support positive change includes such as clear deadline dates, reminders, helpful exemplification, and differentiating approaches to differing personalities. Nuance is key, and a sensitivity that reflects the novel circumstances of this particular academic year. New learning can put anyone at any age outside of their comfort zone so careful thought will be needed around how to approach and broach the topic of change. Be genuine. Be personal.  Then gently let them know that everyone does need to do X, and why, and that you are there for them if they need someone to do it with first.

    Make your action plan your friend


    Planning table


    A tight plan enables you to do more of what matters, broken down into specific objectives and with clear success criteria and milestones. Make sure your planned actions are high value: how will you enable improvements in the focus area? We recommend the ‘actions’ section is primarily about CPD, focused on the subject knowledge or pedagogical gaps that need to be addressed and using a range of strategies for how you will address them.

    One of the threads running through this year’s Subject Leader training is about coaching a colleague in their school. They will look at children’s work, assessment information and use their other monitoring outcomes to identify who to work with and on which areas. Then, through a combination of approaches, they will help that colleague improve their subject knowledge or pedagogy, or both.  In this way, SLs are able to really pinpoint key changes, celebrate their impact and refine their own coaching skills as well.

    Be positive

    No matter how much still needs to be done, there are always green shoots of your impact if you look for them. Maybe keep a note of things you have seen, times when that chat over the coffee urn has paid off and thank you messages from parents or colleagues etc. It’s motivating for your colleagues – and for you – to keep remembering all the good things going on, and it really helps pave the way for other favours you may need to ask, so remember to say thank you or well done to others yourself too.

    Build capacity

    Just as attending the BHEESL course was an investment in capacity-building by the headteachers, fully participating in the course is an investment for the SLs too: investment of time, trust and commitment. It works because we weave the whole course through the school improvement cycle, helping SLs to carry out the very tasks they would be needing to do for themselves anyway but in a collaborative and safe atmosphere where they are supported to go for the hardest parts of the job and constantly encouraged to keep challenging themselves. It’s a unique course. It’s a course people always remember. It’s the kind of course where it changes you as a leader and sets you on the right path to doing the things that matter, getting into the right habits, and developing your own skills as a leader.

    Plan ahead

     The real proof of the pudding about any of your initiatives, projects, or policies will be whether the impact continues after you move on. Will people forget how to do x? Will the edges be rubbed off y? Are there systems built into the school year to ensure things are not forgotten and don’t fall off the radar, or do these improvements you’ve worked so hard to achieve depend on you being there? Again, thinking about how highly effective leaders “create more leaders”, have you instilled in your colleagues some new ways of thinking, so that they have not just the enhanced subject knowledge but also the skills and reflectiveness to sustain those continual improvements and to keep the school journeying ever-upwards..? Quite often on a school staff there is another colleague who is almost as passionate about your subject as you are. Perhaps they might like to shadow you doing some of your SL role, and maybe – just maybe – they could be the one to carry the torch if you move onwards and upwards.

    Join us on ‘Becoming a Highly Effective English Subject Leader’!


    Teamwork graphic


    Having completed the final (virtual) sessions of the BHEESL programme in July, subject leaders were provided with an opportunity to share their experiences and key learning from the year and could pin-point areas to continue to develop. We, as your BHEESL Advisors, have used this learning also to continue to develop this course which now offers a more flexible, digital approach to this particular piece of CPD.

    Here is a taste of what to expect as each session of BHEESL digital learning follows a similar cycle throughout the academic year. There are five sessions in total spread through to May 2012.

    Session 1 – Webinar - 5th November – 10.00 - 12.00pm

    • What it means to be a leader
    • Leading by example
    • Emotional intelligence
    • Curriculum implementation. What next?
    • Where to begin – find out overview of provision
    • Gap Task

    Access to 2 x Pre-recorded videos

    Pre-record 1:

    Subject knowledge - Leading on Reading

    Pre-record 2:

    Leadership skills

    School priorities – how to translate to English priorities

    Effective action planning

    Brief overview: having an effective monitoring schedule

    Middle Leader Spotlight: how to undertake an effective lesson observation & learning walk (inc Pupil Voice)

    Session 2 – Touch base 3rd - December 4.00 - 5.00pm

    Your draft SL action plan

    School Improvement/Development Plan

    Populated summative data summary

    Review of and learning from the pre-recorded videos

    Gap task - how to undertake an effective lesson observation & learning walk (inc Pupil Voice)

    Release of pre-recorded videos

    Sessions 3 and 4 follow a similar pattern of learning with the session 5 in May 2021 bringing reflections and learning together via a webinar.

    We look forward to welcoming you onto ‘Becoming a Highly Effective English Subject Leader’ 2020-21 programme

    Blog authored by: Theresa Clements and Michael Gray.

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