With a focus on curriculum being prioritised in schools the importance of a subject and its associated knowledge, pedagogy etc has become more discussed. This means a shift for some schools from a centralised (everyone in the hall together), one-size fits all (everyone needs to know about X), one person making decisions on content (i.e. an AH for T&L/CPD) approach to CPD. Teachers and subject leads can be keen to have significant role in making decisions about their own CPD and really value the opportunity to be reflective (this excellent blog by Freya @FreyaMariaO shows this).
This isn’t to say that there is no need for some whole school/staff CPD, for example safeguarding or things relating to whole school issues however there is a strong argument that subjects need to have the space and support to be deciding what is needed for them at a department level and taking control of CPD time to meet subject specific needs.
My school has been doing this for a while so I thought I’d share some of the things we’ve done and how we’ve utilised this power and time in the RE department.
INSET day subject time
Most of the time on INSET days is given to subjects. Heads of subject and their teams can decide how they want to use the time given. This can be divided up to be used as individuals, small groups or as a whole team (depending on numbers in the department). We usually talk about subject knowledge and curriculum development. I will have given some reading to do or a preparation activity e.g. look through the year 7 quiz for any adaptations we nee to make’. We get so much done and we also get personal preparation time. Our school is excellent at deciding when to schedule these in the year. They’re at perfect times for us to plan and reflect.
There can be some potential issues with this. It requires subject leaders to know exactly what it is that the team needs to work on which may not always be the case. It also requires them to either have the expertise within the department or know how to access external expertise to support on specific issues. Good school leaders will be able to support in this.
Subject knowledge reading
As part of our INSET time and sometimes as part of our department meetings I give my colleague some relevant reading that links to what we are/will be teaching. It might be a blog, an article, a chapter from a book or in some cases a longer text. We both read it ready to be discussed at an agreed time and to reflect on how this might improve our teaching/schemes.
Examples that we have read this year include:
We are able to do this because I can use some of my subject budget to purchase books that I think will be of use. I know that not all subjects can do this so this should be a consideration for school leaders. I can also do this because I give us the time to discuss them and add them to our schemes.
You’ve heard it said many times, subject meetings should be developmental not admin. I don’t 100% agree with this especially if you have a big team where messages/meaning can be lost in written text. The rule of thumb is that if it can be said in one email then do that, ideally if there are several things then a once weekly subject bulletin reduces emails. However I do think that subject meetings should include either some subject level teaching discussion or at least planning for it for another time.
We talk about how our year groups are getting on with schemes or assessments. We talk about concepts that students have grasped really well or struggled with (e.g. how Ramadan is linked to the moon and the sun) and how we are dealing with this. We talk about how we can adapt the scheme for next time or even ditch parts. We talk about a new resource we’ve found for a topic. We talk about something we read (e.g. the Ofsted RE research review) or saw that might be useful. We use external resources to increase our knowledge of the GCSE (e.g. This free, online AQA, marking guidance course) We talk about teaching and learning in RE all the time.
If subjects are given a budget (of time and money), then they can access external expertise when there are gaps in the department. This does depend on knowing someone that has the knowledge/experience/expertise to address the need. This is where I think that social media comes in handy. Through subject networks you can find people that might be able to help out. Ruth Ashbee (@Ruth_Ashbee) ran a system in her previous school where subject leads had external subject specialist contacts to bounce ideas off and some of these had come via social media.
In 2021, we welcomed Inspiration Trust Religion and Philosophy Lead, Nikki McGee to our school to do some training on Hindu dharma. We had told Nikki what we needed help with and she shared her knowledge, links to resources and texts. The great thing about this is that we could ask our (sometimes silly?!) subject knowledge questions to her.
We have also watched videos of people talking about teaching (e.g. videos from the RE subject association, NATRE, annual conference) where we can pause and discuss as we need to and skip parts we don’t need!
How we teach things can be very subject specific. We should be beyond the ‘all subjects, all lessons must do X’ at a pedagogical level’ when sometimes it just doesn’t work and isn’t appropriate (I’m hearing of schools that are currently introducing a 5 part, non-negotiable lesson structure). If a school wishes all staff to consider a particular pedagogical practice then there must be time at subject level to discuss how it might work (or not) with their domain. When we launched our Principles for Learning 6 years ago we gave time to subject areas to consider what they already do that might use some of the principles and to discuss what else they might do. We need to also accept that if we do give something to all subjects to consider that they have the expertise to process and adapt or say ‘this doesn’t work for our subject’.
This year we have shifted some of our generic, whole school, 15 minute forums to subject level 15 minute forums. This means that we are able to decide what is shared and we take turns in leading this. It should be something that will be of use to colleagues that the individual does in their own teaching and is worth sharing. Sharing this amongst a team means that everyone gets to have the opportunity to share ideas but also the responsibility of sharing something. It’s timetabled after school and must not go over 15 minutes! This creates a space to focus on subject level pedagogy.
What senior leaders need to do to enable this
- Talking about subject teaching – The key to all of this is subject level discussion. Not ‘Can we buy some more text books?’ or ‘Who should move up a set?’ but subject knowledge and subject level pedagogical knowledge.
- Time, time, time – This really is the key and is of no surprise. A mixture of longer periods when people can really get into things and shorter times for quick ‘bites’. We all have the same amount of time available to us in schools so the time exists. What don’t we need to be doing to give teachers time for subject level CPD?
- Resources including money – A school should support subjects in being able to access the things they need to support subject level development. Even a budget of £50 for books for the year would be a start. If it could only be spent on subject knowledge/teaching (not student resources) books it could make a difference. Who can school/subject leaders go to for external subject support? What support and encouragement are subject leads given to do this?
- A culture of development– We’re all doing our best but we can all also be better. The way in which leaders speak about teaching and CPD matters. Telling a subject lead ‘you must do X’ if they haven’t/can’t/won’t consider something important is not good leadership or management. It’s unlikely to lead to a culture of trust.
- Trust – Subject leaders need to be trusted to do their job. This doesn’t mean that ‘anything goes’, there will always be some leaders than need some direction and support in this, especially if their own experience as a teacher wasn’t one of being trusted/supported.