Reflections on Subject Leadership

I started my current post in January 2008. It’s been a long journey since then. I have tried to start collecting my thoughts, values and ideas about subject leadership and I am going to share these here. Many are ideas from others, and I have tried to acknowledge these people. This isn’t the right way, just the way I have tried to do things and the lessons I have learnt. I wonder how many of these can apply to leadership in general. One of my goals this year is to read more widely about leadership.

I find it easier to structure my thoughts as images in a presentation. If people read the following then great. If not – it’s a nice way to get my thoughts together. The following presentation was used in a recent Brighton and Hove Geography Subject Leaders event focused on raising achievement.

The following thoughts are very organic, and a bit messy. I’ve shared them here in an attempt to focus my thoughts, and I expect to revisit this post and edit as my thoughts develop.


These are my personal values. They affect every decision that I make. They are very important to me. These values affect my leadership priorities.

1. Life

I’m a father, family member, friend, geographer, outdoor adventurer, learner and teacher. The order is important. That is the way I prioritise things. This I know is controversial with some, but I view teaching as a job. An important job that I love. But a job. It is not as important as going out to create or experiencing geography. It will never be more important than my family a friends. I never really new my father. He was too busy running coal mines.

2. Hitchhiker

I loved Doug Belshaw’s post. Doug has articulated something that I have always felt. I’ve never been one to be first with innovation. As a leader I believe that it’s my role to ensure that there aren’t too many bandwagon jumpers within a team.

3. Another world is possible

I believe that it is always possible to get to where you want to be. Barriers can be overcome and people are too busy to worry about being negative. There have been many personal events that have shaped this view, all too personal to share here. We are all a product of our experiences and as such our perspective is shaped by these episodes.

4. Tools in a toolkit

There is no ‘answer’ or ‘way to to it’. There are many paths and tools. As a leader it’s part of my role to evaluate these tools and to select the best. The most appropriate or effective.

5. Reinvention

Always improve or use an existing solution where possible. Why invent new systems when energy can be better spent?


So what are my leadership priorities? The following points are specific to subject leadership. I think that I should point out that the following points have been developed through experience. They aren’t necessarily the way I have always done things.

1. Learning

This is our core purpose. The questions we need a yes to are: Will this improve learning? and Will this help my team to improve learning?

If the answer is not yes, then why are we doing it? As a subject leader we need to act as a filter for our teams. Does everything that cascades down from SLT need to be shared with the department?

We should be making strategic decisions about our departments, and not be caught up in the finer detail.

2. Team

The most important element of a department is its people. There is no point introducing amazing technology and new ways of learning if the staff aren’t ready to deliver / use / act.
Creating a continuous CPD culture based upon trust and respect is vital if a team are to move forward.

Coming from an outdoor background, I’m a great fan of team building. However, this doesn’t mean painful ice breakers and people bingo. Just get out to the local cafe or use an Inset day to pre-visit a fieldwork location. There is plenty of opportunity to get to know one another.

Are department meetings about communicating administrative tasks or for CPD and curriculum development?

Stick up for your team when appropriate, and don’t let personal ambitions stop you doing this.

3. Communication

Closely linked to Team, but also linked to how the wider school community see the department. Without clear lines of communication even the best laid development plan will fail. What are people saying about you?

Are your aims clear? Does everyone in the team know what they are? Are they sold on them?

Don’t be afraid of making decisions. Not all choices need to be taken after consultation.

Go prepared to all meetings with data and handouts, especially with SLT, Line Management or the SIP.

Create a brand for the department – publish aims widely and be ambitious.

Ensure that everyone knows what’s going on e.g. who’s on courses? Keep everything transparent and use morning briefings or a department newsletter/blog/email to keep all in the loop. Even the smallest decision can leave people feeling like mushrooms.

4. Engagement

Take decisions and run with them. Have the courage of your convictions. This is what we are doing and this is why. If an initiative fails – learn the lessons and move on.

Get involved in national, regional and LA events. Join the subject association and engage with curriculum change.

5. Modeling

A big part of this is admitting when you are wrong. Do you want to achieve a department of clones or a team with varied strengths and weaknesses?

When introducing changes have you proven them in the school?

Looking at a book sample?

6. Barriers

There will always be barriers to change. Which ones can you do something about? If you can;t change or destroy a barrier, stop and find a way around. For example, there is little you can do about new GCSE regulations, so instead of moaning about new rules do the best for your learners and find the best way to apply them.

Other forms of barrier you can nudge or remove. Put your energy into these. For example, the impression that SLT has of your department or the role of Geography in education can be changed through passionate, intelligent and clear argument.

7. Monitoring

How do you know that learning is effective across your team? Monitoring must be a part of your department. However, effective monitoring is not the annual raft of observations that are linked to performance management.

Try to create an open door culture where your team are encouraged to monitor your own books, lessons and ideas. I’m a big fan of the informal drop in – designed to support staff and learning.

Share and celebrate good ideas – your way is not the only or necessarily the right way.

8. Focus on the positive

During a typical week there is far more amazing positive stuff going on than not. Take the chance to celebrate this and always take time for cake, tea and medals.

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