School Leadership shift: subject leaders as Teaching & Learning experts


Here are some job descriptions for secondary, senior leadership, Teaching & Learning roles:

  • To ensure that all students have access to a high quality learning experience.
  • To monitor and evaluate student progress and achievement.
  • To support teachers to improve the consistency and effectiveness of teaching and learning
  • To promote Quality First Teaching so that all students achieve the best possible outcomes
  • To ensure Continuous Professional Development is relevant, high profile and supported by research
  • To ensure high attaining students are sufficiently challenged and inspired
  • To ensure students with SEND receive high quality first teaching in the classroom
  • To ensure disadvantaged students and those needing catch up are motivated and make good progress
  • To ensure all students develop skills for independent study and life – long learning
  • To promote effective liaison with other professionals across the MAT and outside the school to ensure best practice

Whilst I’m sure most people think these are important parts of an effective school, in this blog I am proposing that the responsibility for actioning these should mostly come down to teachers & subject leaders. In fact, it’s nonsense to think that they aren’t their responsibility but these senior leadership T&L descriptors seem to take an overall responsibility for something that involves many different subjects & potentially different approaches.

Most secondary schools will have an AHT or DHT in charge of teaching & learning. This role usually involves whole school approaches to assessment, CPD, teaching etc. There are several issues with this approach.

Current model issues

One of the big issues with the current model is that one person is leading T&L across multiple subjects but will probably only really know and understand the workings of their own subject or faculty area. Some of us will have experienced senior leaders from one discipline trying to enforce whole school T&L policies to all subjects because it works in their subject when they don’t work across subjects. For example, Maths senior leaders deciding that books should be marked once a week, basing it on their 5 classes and not an RE teacher’s 21 classes.

The T&L lead may supposed to be the ‘expert’ on everything T&L when in fact there may be other people in the school that know more than them on specific aspects of T&L. This hierarchical approach means that the school may not benefit from the expertise of all teachers. Whilst I can hear people saying ‘but I don’t do this’ I know there are are senior leaders that are firmly stuck in the hierarchical approach where their voice is more important and /or authoritative, even if they’re less experienced or knowledgable than others.

Things like observations and book scrutinies are problematical with a top-down approach of SLT members that may not be trained in a particular discipline, using whole school criteria making judgments on teachers. Whilst many schools have ditched these practices it’s the top down approach and out of specialism issue that added to their ineffectiveness.

In all of this, subject leaders’ roles are often limited to curriculum design, assessment (centrally aligned to whole school), exam administration, general administration & general management of the team as determined by whole school policies . Limited because they don’t necessarily make many subject levels decisions. The use of their subject expertise may be limited by whole school policies and processes.

I know some people will read this and say ‘we don’t do it like this’ but there are schools and leaders that do. It’s a model that doesn’t seem to appreciate that subject leaders should be the experts and in this be able to make subject level decisions that are appropriate. Also saying that you believe that your subject leaders are experts is not the same as actually treating them this way.

A ‘new’ subject level model – The ‘expert’ subject leader

This model focuses more on how a subject works and what good teaching & learning means for a specific subject. It is a distributed leadership model where subject leads have the power to make decisions independently of others. Subject level leadership means that pedagogy, assessment , CPD etc is relevant and appropriate for a subject discipline. Teaching and learning could be research informed but also subject discipline informed. The subject leader would be the ‘expert’ leading the team.

Whole school development plans would change for those that use a top down approach to a subject level approach. The whole school development plan would be constructed from the subject priorities rather than vice versa. Subject level development plans wouldn’t be written addressing whole school priorities but subject level priorities. They would be regularly reviewed and changed where needed depending on subject needs. (As an aside, my current Twitter poll is showing that 25% of respondents do not know what their school development plan says. What can this tell us?)

Instead of generic targets such as ‘increased progress for pupil premium students’ on the whole school plan, it would name which subjects this was a focus for and specifically which strategies each subject was going to trial for the year. If pupil premium students are achieving as their non-PP peers then a subject area doesn’t need to be spending time on this.

This model would also see a shift in how subject meetings are run. It may also impact frequency. Sessions might be wholly subject specific CPD or development of assessments. The important part is that they would be lead collaboratively by the subject leader because that is what the subject needs not what a whole school plan says.

A subject leader would have a CPD budget of money and time. It would be up to them to decide how it was best used. Subject leads would be told what time they have annually including INSET days and they and their team would be responsible for planning this. Probably a term at a time to be flexible in upcoming needs. Gone are the days of every teacher sitting in one room for a day learning about X or Y. There may well be people that already know about X and dare I say more than the person leading the session! They don’t need to be there. CPD should be personalised, subject context specific and sustained to make it effective.

In this model, subject leaders & their teams would be strongly encouraged to work with their external subject communities in developing T&L. Whether it be via their subject association, local networks, online networks or social media. Importantly this would be seen as part of their allocated time not a bolt on if you have time or are more motivated to do so.

Subject specific CPD would be a large part of what subject leads do. It doesn’t always need to be lead by them but coordinated by them. They know the subject knowledge strengths and gaps of themselves and their team. They would know if external support is needed.

If a school wanted to use afore mentioned accountability measures then these would be at subject level. The subject team would decide what would be useful for observations to focus on or what book scrutinies would look at. They would closely link with the subject level priorities and would use subject level paper work if necessary.

Centralised systems & associated paperwork wouldn’t be imposed on subjects. Frameworks might be suggested and particular research suggested as a foundation but it would always make sense for a subject’s needs not someone trying to get everyone to do the same. These might include:

  • Marking and/or feedback – frequency, type
  • Monitoring systems – How? What? Why?
  • Assessment – how? When? What?

Time and money?

Isn’t this just giving subject leaders more to do with insufficient time and the same money? If you take the current model in many schools where subject leaders do not have these responsibilities then clearly having one or two extra non-contact periods a week won’t work. This model would need a whole new perspective on timetabling. You couldn’t use the current timetable and squeeze the new responsibilities into it. You would also need to think carefully if there are things that currently subject leaders do that they would no longer need to do. This model would involve a rethink of school structures.

The role of the senior leader and Teaching & Learning

Won’t this all be chaotic? Every subject doing their own thing?

The senior leader job as per the job descriptions would need to change. Centrally made decisions would be shifted to subject level decisions. So what could happen to the senior leadership role? The role may totally be dissolved. Or it might be remodelled to support the new structure.

However this wouldn’t be just a shift in semantics of the role description. It is a big shift in decision making and accountability. The subject leader makes the decisions with their team and the senior leader works with them to help them happen. The expertise lies at subject level with the senior leader being a facilitator and supporter.

This new role could be a line manager to all subject leaders so they have an overview of everything that is happening. The person would have to develop a good understanding of how subjects work epistemologically, pedagogically etc. They would work closely with the subject leaders to understand what they are doing and why. This role would skilfully be able to support subject leads in identifying what may/may not be needed for subject development; a conversation not a diktat.

The senior leader role would particularly support new subject leaders in their role, mentoring them through the first year or beyond. They would also support those subject leaders that may find some parts of the role challenging. They would need to be flexible.

This model doesn’t fully negate the need for some whole school direction and specific CPD e.g. safeguarding, but non-statutory training would need to be carefully thought through if all colleagues/subjects really need it.

As this person would have a whole school overview they would be able to identify where subjects might work together on something. For example, if History and English were looking at metacognition they may join their subject session to share research, reading and strategies. This would be mutual development time.

The biggest challenge for this person would be consistency. But it’s a shift of consistency from making everyone do the same, to consistency of high quality subject leadership. It requires someone that is flexible and knowledgable. They would be highly sensitive to the balance between support and instruction. I would argue it might be a more challenging job than that described above.

This model isn’t without its own issues. However I think that the distributed leadership model means that school development works at a subject, micro level which has more chance of being owned by teachers and therefore potentially have more impact than a macro, top-down system.

I know there are some schools that already follow this proposed model but I think they’re a small minority. It would be interesting to hear from you on what the advantages and disadvantages of this model are.

NB I’ve not had time to add references to support these ideas but may come back to add them


5 thoughts on “School Leadership shift: subject leaders as Teaching & Learning experts

  1. Hi
    I’m currently implementing this model in my school in readiness for September. Happy to share findings or discuss further.

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