Leading a large department as a middle leader

Dec. 20, 2016

Jon Hall

Head of Department for English, Heaton Manor School

“There is a size at which dignity begins and one at which ghastliness begins,” said Thomas Hardy. He could have been talking about modern secondary schools.

As a new Head of English in a school of over 2000 pupils, it can sometimes feel like you’re dragging people along with you, rather than inspiring them to run with you. However, in my experience, it’s important to remember that your colleagues are your greatest resource and the heartbeat of change. Size doesn’t have to be ‘ghastly’, but something you use to your advantage to drive progress and attainment in a bustling, inner city school.


Sharing the vision

Somebody told me recently, at a Teaching Leaders conference, that change can only occur when people share and understand your vision. At the very least it’s important that staff know which direction you’re heading in and how you intend to get there. Keep it simple. Change breeds uncertainty, so it’s important that staff know your philosophy from the outset. People perform better with clear goals and expectations and students benefit from a team that’s ‘in the know’.

Keep it simple

If your marking or behaviour policy is longer than a page, then it’s too long. Consistency is born of simplicity. The Ten Commandments, the Green Cross Code or even the rules of ‘Fight Club’; simple and memorable but apparently you’re not supposed to talk about that last one. Take data for example: it doesn’t have to be a maze, it really is just about knowing the students who are underperforming in your class or across your department.

One idea to improve culture around data: I started ‘Speed Data-ing’ in the department as a quick and effective way of getting staff to share practical tips and ideas on their own and others’ class data. The benefits of a classroom teacher knowing their students’ data and how to plan appropriately are absolutely critical to moving students up the progression ladder. Plus it’s a bit of fun in those dreary Monday meetings.

"The Teaching Leaders Fellows programme not only reawakened my desire to motivate and lead people, but also to understand them."


Although a large department is certainly a strength, there has to be a shared vision of what constitutes outstanding teaching and learning. I’d never advocate teaching identikit lessons, but having high quality, basic lesson resources in place that can be adapted to suit the needs of any student or class is fundamental in raising standards. English in particular has gone through a period of flux in recent years and the constant need to plan and re-resource the curriculum has taken its toll on staff.

To counteract this and alleviate the pressures of workload (whilst also looking to improve the quality of resources) I set out to develop a Heaton Manor ‘branded’ approach to learning within the English department. In a large school, it’s not possible to be in every classroom so it’s important, as a Head of Department, to be confident that your staff are delivering high quality, tailored lessons to engage and enthuse students. A key priority of the team has been to develop a menu of tried and tested resources that can be easily embedded into any lesson. For example, peer and self-assessment templates, questioning templates, learning objective templates and resources tailored towards the new specifications. This has had an immediate impact on raising standards of teaching and learning and developing staff confidence with the new specifications.


Value your team

Of course strategies, systems and initiatives are useless… unless you can convince your staff to buy into them. Staff need to know that you care about them. Take the time to talk to them and actively listen to them. The Teaching Leaders programme not only reawakened my desire to motivate and lead people, but also to understand them. Leading a department isn’t just about making your colleagues’ lives easier, it’s about providing them with the platform to feel valued and deliver results that will instil a deeper sense of pride and make a difference to children’s lives.

Applications are now open for our Teaching Leaders Programme, which has been tailored for primary and secondary school leaders.

This article first appeared on SecEd in April 2016. To read the full article click here.

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