Building Time for Subject Leaders: Top Tips for Heads and Senior Leaders

You've got at least 12 National Curriculum subjects that must be taught in primary and secondary settings, which means you need at least 12 subject leaders to monitor, improve and know the subject inside and out. But with a crammed curriculum and seriously reduced budgets, how can school leaders support subject leaders to actually carry out monitoring and implement change?

In this blog, we explore tried-and-tested strategies for senior leaders and heads that tackle this issue at a whole-school level by covering the following areas:

    We've also created a similar blog for subject leaders themselves to look at creative and flexible ways that they can find time within the school day to carry out monitoring tasks, which you may also find useful: Efficient Subject Leadership: Top Tips for Making the Most of Limited Time.

    How to shift the mindset of monitoring to include less rigidity and more flexibility

    We’re great at flexible, adaptive teaching in the classroom and tailoring our lessons to different pupils’ needs – in fact, we’d expect to see these skills used as part of a high-quality teaching toolkit. We also know how good staff are at responding to the chaos of school life, such as the pupil who knocks out a tooth doing a handstand in the playground or when we’re ready to teach computing, only for the internet to be down.

    So why do schools create rigid and inflexible rules and timetables when it comes to subject leadership monitoring?

    If you give each subject leader half-a-day every term to “do” subject leadership but something comes along and blocks this, then it’s really not a productive or effective use of time. And why do we think of subject leadership in such big blocks of release time? After all, not many headteachers give themselves half-a-day every term to “do” school improvement.

    Being fluid, adaptable and responsive – just like we are when teaching – is key to school leadership therefore it should be no different for subject leaders.

    Implementing effective timetabling of subject leader release time

    By boxing ourselves into rigid timetables, we can create (or fail to respond to) problems. For example, if the History lead gets planned classroom cover on Wednesday in the fourth week of the second half term, and this is all the time they’re allocated that term, what if the following happens:

    • They’re absent and miss the monitoring slot.
    • Other staff are absent and you can’t provide cover for them to be released from class.
    • History isn’t being taught or Wednesday in the fourth week of the second half term so observations can’t take place.
    • Observations, scrutiny and monitoring take place but your history lead discovers there are widespread quality issues that need to be attended to.

    Having fixed monitoring timetables like this is almost setting subject leaders up to fail because there are so many variables that can derail your best-laid plans. You may also want to ask yourself if they also work for the subject leader to monitor effectively – after all, they’ll likely have to provide planning for the half-day cover when there may be a more time-effective way to be released from classroom commitments (there's more info on this in our blog for subject leaders).

    Also, by blocking a half-day once per half-term, your subject leader is only seeing a very narrow view of what's happening on that particular morning or afternoon, a bit like Ofsted do in a deep dive. We understand why Ofsted take this approach (and if they didn't, they'd be in school inspecting for even longer!) but it's not necessarily the best way for subject leaders to monitor when they're present at school day-in, day-out.

    Ask yourself: Why do I give subject leaders a single block of time to monitor? As a school, are we stuck in a rut with how we've timetabled monitoring? What are the benefits of scheduling monitoring in single blocks of time and what are the drawbacks? Does it work for subject leaders to monitor in this way?

    If at this point you're thinking of Ofsted and deep dives, we've got everything you need to support your subject leaders to prepare for the process. Use the full pack containing every subject to support your whole team or explore the individual packs on our store:


    Deep Dive in Every Subject: Full Curriculum Set - Honeyguide School Leader Support

    Try timetabling by monitoring activity, rather than by subject

    Rather than giving slots of time per subject, why not consider planning slots of time per monitoring activity? For example, you could say that in the middle two weeks of a term, you want all subject leaders to conduct a book look and report back on key findings.

    This method creates a shared purpose and can allow less experienced subject leaders to work with more experienced staff, thus building their understanding of the monitoring process.  As a head or senior leader, you can then also gather a picture of the whole curriculum at the same time as well as being able to plan for release time, where necessary.

    Ask yourself: Could this approach work for some subject monitoring and quality assurance processes in our school? What might I need to provide staff with?


    Prioritise by need, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach

    Depending on your school’s context, it’s likely different subjects (or different monitoring areas) will have different needs. For example, you might know that Maths is an area that needs improvement, therefore it’s common sense to allow your Maths lead more time to work on this. While this could be accompanied by grumbles from other subject leaders if they're not afforded the same amount of time as others, your decision is based on actual school and pupil needs, rather than an expectation that everyone automatically needs the same amount of time.

    The same goes for areas of development. For example, if you’ve identified accurate assessment in the foundation subjects as a development point, more time and focus needs to be placed on this area, therefore you may ask subject leaders to concentrate on this, rather than following a rigid schedule where every term, there must be a learning walk, book look and pupil voice survey, and so on.

    Ask yourself: Which subjects need to be prioritised and are therefore given more time? Which teaching and learning areas need more focus? How can you develop a responsive monitoring timetable to meet these needs, rather than sticking with what you’ve done previously?

    Help staff to prioritise and avoid viewing subject monitoring as a tick list

    Sometimes the language and mindset we have around subject leadership can actually be prohibitive to it taking place effectively. A classic example is a subject leader saying they have "done" their subject monitoring (and therefore they don't need to "do" any more). However, when you enter middle leadership, senior leadership and headship, you begin to see the bigger picture of monitoring cycles much more clearly. However, it can be challenging for subject leaders with classroom commitments to see this in action as their focus is on the pupils they teach, not the impact of their subject leadership. 

    Recognising this and supporting staff to view subject leadership as an ongoing process, and one that doesn't have a quick win, is really important. The same goes for follow-up actions based on the monitoring; they've monitored their subject and found out x, y and z, what's next?

    Ask yourself: Is there a culture of "doing" subject monitoring as a task to tick off a list, rather than seeing it as an ongoing process? How can you support subject leaders, especially those who are new to subject leadership, to understand the cyclical nature of monitoring? If you want to provide support for this, our Evaluating Impact and Planning Ahead pack can help.

    How to build and organise time for subject leaders to complete monitoring outside of their teaching commitments

    With 39 weeks in the school year and five INSET days, how can school leaders dedicate staff meeting and INSET time to all of the subjects in the curriculum, which include 12-13 statutory ones depending on your setting's age range? Long-term planning and careful organisation are required to ensure that any staff meeting time is used effectively and efficiently.

    Give careful thought to how you use staff meetings

    One option for making best use of staff meeting time is to dedicate a staff meeting each term or half-term for staff to use on subject leader monitoring. This allows staff to carry out any tasks they feel are necessary for subject leadership as well as allowing senior leaders to support them and gather feedback on the progress in each subject as necessary.

    You may also wish to consider how time efficient your staff meetings, twilights and INSET days currently are. Ensuring agendas are tight and time is not lost to updates or briefings that could be shared in a different manner will allow more time for subject leadership as well as other school improvement items.

    Ask yourself: Where could I create time in staff meetings by making agendas tighter? Is there scope to dedicate staff meetings to subject leadership?


    Be realistic about subject monitoring schedules

    In an ideal world, every subject leader would have sufficient time to carry out all the tasks necessary but in reality, this is extremely challenging to achieve. This means senior leaders must give consideration to what's actually achievable when planning subject monitoring schedules. This includes realistic deadlines for larger pieces of subject leadership work such as curriculum reviews and development work.

    In particular, senior leaders should consider how they'll enable release time for subject leaders, where subject leadership will feature in staff meetings and INSETs, and how all of this links with any planned professional development (more on this later).

    Ask yourself: Have subject leaders been able to carry out the tasks we've allocated in previous terms/years? Are they monitoring anything that's not helpful which could be stopped? What larger pieces of work will subject leaders need dedicated release time for?

    Consider individual staff needs and how subject leadership is allocated

    Ideally, all subject leaders will have passion for and deep knowledge of the subject they lead but this can't always be the case, especially in smaller schools or in settings where there are gaps in subject specialisms in the staff body. Additionally, your staff team shouldn't be viewed as a never-changing group of people who will lead the same subject(s) year after year. Some may wish to progress in their careers while others may not, and with staff leaving and joining your setting, there will inevitably be changes to subject leadership. Use this to your advantage when distributing subject leadership, ensuring staff expertise is utilised but that they also have room for professional growth and development. 

    Ask yourself: Which staff are looking for further development opportunities? Which staff might benefit from changing subject leadership roles? Where are there gaps in our subject leader expertise?

    If you're wanting to explore the strengths and development points of your subject leaders or recruit a new subject leader with a particular specialism, these complementary packs are ideal.


    Consider how you organise subject leadership

    Like the above suggestion, you may be in the position to alter how you organise the leadership of all subjects based on your school's strengths, needs and context. Consider whether the following (or a hybrid approach of the following) would work for you setting: 

    • Subject leader teams - leadership for one subject is distributed across a small team, facilitating shared workload and allowing less experienced staff to work alongside more experienced colleagues. This approach works in larger schools or for subjects where there are multiple strands to monitor, such as English or Maths.
    • One subject leader per subject - a common model where one person has the leadership responsibility for a single subject area. This allows the leader to hold a strong grasp on the subject, but can be challenging to manage, particularly in smaller schools.
    • Subject leadership in small schools - staff will often need to lead across multiple areas if there aren't enough staff in the school to cover each subject. Often, senior leaders will hold subject leadership responsibility and in very small schools, so will the headteacher. In these circumstances, careful consideration should be given to how subjects are distributed.
    • Subject leader teams across multi-academy trusts and federations - similar to a subject leader team, some schools share subject leadership across their MAT or federation. Aspects of this can work well, such as one person delivering subject-specific CPD for several schools, but consideration needs to be given to how well a teacher from a different school can understand the strengths and development points of another setting.

    Ask yourself: What model, or combination of models, could work in your setting? Is there anything that you could take forward and explore to make subject leadership more effective?


    How to plan effective CPD and development opportunities for subject leaders

    There are multiple providers, both online and offline, offering CPD courses for subject leaders, but is this what your subject leaders really need? Before shelling out, the following are low-cost, time-effective and can be run in-house.

    Revisit the National Curriculum and your curriculum intent

    Do your subject leaders all sing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to your curriculum intent? If not, any time allocated to carrying out subject leadership can be wasted if different leaders are looking for different things. Revisit your curriculum vision and intent statement(s), pausing to amend and review these where necessary, and ensure all subject leaders understand what your school aims to achieve.

    The same goes for the National Curriculum. Yes, we're all aware of the statutory requirements and subject content detailing what should be taught in each year/phase, but revisit the purpose of the study and aims of each subject. This can help to ensure that each subject leader understands what your school is aiming to achieve.

    Ask yourself: Can you (as a senior leader or head) effectively articulate your curriculum intent? When was the last time your team looked at the National Curriculum together when thinking about curriculum development?

    If this has sparked thoughts about your curriculum as a whole, we have a Curriculum and Quality of Education Audit that can serve as a starting point for curriculum development work.

    Develop your subject leaders' actual leadership skills

    You might have a science leader with a Masters' in Chemistry or an art leader who creates award-winning sculptures in their spare time but if they don't possess leadership skills, is their subject leadership going to be effective?

    Explore leadership behaviours and skills, such as how to deliver effective feedback or how to triangulate information to draw accurate conclusions, and deliver this training to all staff, not just your subject leaders. This helps everyone to understand what subject leaders need to do when they monitor as well as building a team-wide shared endeavour and support for those who are aspiring to be subject leaders themselves.

    Ask yourself: Which general leadership skills do our subject leaders have? Which skills are lacking? Which members of our team possess these skills and can model them or support others?


    Carefully consider your budget and explore subject associations

    A bit like with monitoring schedules, it's easy to get stuck in a rut with subscriptions to resources, such as schemes or add-ons that support curriculum teaching. If you're looking to support subject leaders through paid routes, subject associations employ experts whose only focus is on top-quality teaching and learning in that subject area. Because of this, you might want to consider subscriptions to subject associations to support your subject leader and if your budget is tight (which it undoubtedly is), cutting some of the less-used curriculum resources may be one way to fund this. 

    Ask yourself: Where could we cut curriculum costs in order to fund subject association memberships? Which subscriptions do we no longer use effectively? If subject leaders have individual curriculum budgets, could portions of these be used?

    It wouldn't be a Honeyguide blog without me telling you that your setting can save money by purchasing just the resources you need with us. There's no pricey monthly or yearly subscriptions which you only use once or twice to grab a policy that you don't want to write yourself - just buy what you need, when you need it. Take a look at our full resource store for more.


    Final thoughts

    If there was a quick fix to the issue of finding more time for subject leaders, this blog would be a lot shorter! But unfortunately, the current situation that many schools find themselves in means they are forced to be creative and flexible in supporting their subject leaders - we hope this blog has given you at least one time-saving idea to take forward!


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