Ten top tips for core subject leaders

    Published: 27 August 2019

    Kirsten Snook, English Adviser and course trainer for ‘Becoming a Highly Effective Subject Leader’, reflects on what makes the biggest differences to increasingly busy subject leaders and with increasingly tight budgets. Drawing on feedback from course delegates, she outlines some top tips that have helped them this year to really see the fruits of their labours.

    As we near the end of this academic year and look ahead to the next, it’s a good time for subject leaders to stop, take stock and reflect on how the year has gone. For subject leaders, often the measure of your impact is through pupil outcomes… percentages, data, ITAFs, SATs etc. But don’t forget all the other angles to your role – the leadership skills, deep subject knowledge and getting strategic when improving teaching and learning. All these things have a massive impact on pupil outcomes too. In this bite-sized article, I summarise the key thoughts and reflections of the fantastic subject leaders I have worked with over this past year, in the hope that some practice-sharing tips help you to get in the mood for next year.

    1. Don’t try to fix everything at once!

    You may feel that everything needs sorting at once, 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. Remember what conscientious creatures we teachers are – we will never feel finished, no matter how many late nights we put in. 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 want to ‘get on your bus’ and come with you!

    2. Do some ‘quick-win’ monitoring activities

    Yes, a thorough trawl of pupil books or full-on lesson observations are sometimes necessary, especially at the beginning of the year or when you’re new to the role of SL, or even when doing a full ‘stocktake’ of how English currently fares in your school. But sometimes, and once in role, you know what you’re looking for or checking up on, and so you can make targeted use of your time. Ofsted prefer Learning Walks these days, which is 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. We would normally call these activities Lesson Observations, Work Scrutiny and Pupil Voice. How much nicer ‘Learning Walk’ sounds though! There will be times 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 here.

    3. Don’t forget to evaluate!

    Sounds obvious I know, 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? Bundling in with you in your Guided Writing session?  Or even helping lead a tiny bit of a staff meeting on something you’ve seen them do well? Invest time in plotting these into calendars, annotating your action plan and you will really start to feel on top of things.

    4. 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. After all, it may not even work in your school – you won’t know until you trial it. The best next step is to ‘scale it up’, eg ask a friend 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 both a strong position to roll out your change and also to know how to support colleagues with implementing it. See the Education Endowment Foundation website here for more on this process of ‘scaling up’ before ‘rolling out’.

    5. 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, such as the point above and things such as clear deadline dates, reminders, examples of What a Good One Looks Like (WAGOLL), and differentiating approaches to differing personalities… you know, the kinds of things we do with other, smaller-sized learners. New learning can put anyone at any age outside of their comfort zone so think about what you know works with little learners and how you can apply this to older ones. The key differences being emotional baggage that older learners may well have (“I can never get this right!”) and seeing through patronising talk (“Oh I see you’re just trying to make me feel valued”). Get genuine. Get personal. Level with them a little. 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.

    6. Make your action plan your friend

    Oh, they can be a pain to write at first, but wow can they be useful for keeping you on track, not trying to save the world too much and also for being able to reflect on how great you actually are at your job. 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. Tip: if it’s all about the staff meetings, think outside the box. In what other ways can you make a difference (and often a bigger difference)?

    One of the threads running through this year’s Subject Leader training was about coaching a colleague in their school. They looked at children’s work, assessment information and used their other monitoring outcomes to identify who to work with and on which areas. Then, through a combination of planning support and often team-teaching too, they have helped that colleague improve their subject knowledge or pedagogy, or both.  In this way, SLs were able to really pinpoint the key changes they were seeing, celebrate their impact and to refine their own coaching skills as well.

    7. Stop counting books!

    No, I mean it. Stop. If you are the one counting how many books in the Guided Reading sets per year group then your talents are going to waste. Can you delegate? Are there some volunteers, or even keen Y6 children, who can do these sorts of tasks for you, once shown how? Yes, you need to keep an eye on resources and replenishment/gap-filling, but really and honestly the biggest (and most expensive) resource in a school is the human one: people’s brains. You need to reserve your precious time for working with people, helping them reflect, evaluate and move themselves forwards. My course co-trainer, Theresa Clements, reminded me of a brilliant quote:

    “Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.” (Tom Peters)

    This really spoke to our subject leaders on the course, as all the way along they have been thinking ‘How do I enable this colleague to carry on doing X independently, after my support?’. That’s what you’re after really isn’t it? Show them your planning (for example), have a go together, now let them go it alone. It’s the same scaffolding model as when we work with little learners too: I can, we can, you can. When embarking on a piece of support always think about how you will enable them to carry on on their own; have an exit strategy.

    8. Be positive

    It’s not all doom and gloom. 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 little note-book of things you have seen, times when that chat over the coffee urn has paid off and ‘thank you’s 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.

    9. Build capacity

    Just as attending the BHESL 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. I recall attending its Grandpappy ‘SLIPs’ (Subject Leadership in Primary Schools…anyone else remember that from c.2005?!). 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. Who knows where it could take you in the future! I often speak to deputies and heads who fondly remember coming on SLIPs in the past (“It totally changed me” said one). Well, it has evolved, quite rightly, into something very robust, very reflective and very much geared towards the higher expectations of NC2014 and Ofsted schedules of today.

    10. Plan ahead

    Start thinking now about ‘what about after I’m gone?’. 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 when you are gone.

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

    –  New to leading English, or simply wanting to further evidence your SL impact?

    –  Is your Subject Leader action plan driving up all three of these areas: quality of teaching, learning & assessment, outcomes, and leadership & management?

    –  Do you “have a deep, accurate understanding of the school’s effectiveness” and “use this to keep the school improving by focusing on the impact of [your] actions in key areas”?

    (from Ofsted 2015, Leadership and Management criteria for Outstanding)

    –  Do you enable teachers to “demonstrate deep knowledge and understanding”, and “demonstrate understanding of the ways pupils think about subject content”?

    (Ofsted 2015, Teaching, Learning and Assessment criteria for Outstanding)

    If the answers were: “yes, yes, not yet, not yet”, then this training is perfect for you:

    *  dedicated English courses

    *  for new SLs or those further developing their impact

    *  longer term collaborative CPD

    *  supported gap tasks

    *  NC 2014’s key subject knowledge

    *  monitoring, evaluating and impacting

    *  release your inner ‘subject champion’!


    Book now to avoid disappointment, and know that the next stage of your career development is in the hands of HfL, the region’s leading school improvement provider.

    Course Code:  19ENG/022P                                                 

    Book online: www.cpd.hertsforlearning.co.uk

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