Efficient Subject Leadership: Top Tips for Making the Most of Limited Time

Does the following list of jobs and duties seem rather familiar?

  • Classroom teaching responsibilities with a jam-packed timetable and (overly?) full curriculum
  • Planning, which includes adapting any schemes of work or starting from scratch
  • Marking, which depending on your school's policy could significantly increase your workload
  • Administration, such as data drops, report writing and other tasks
  • Before and after-school meetings, plus extra-curricular clubs
  • Oh, and...subject leadership duties?

Whether you're a classroom teacher or in a school leadership position, you'll recognise the struggle of fitting in regular teaching and learning tasks, let alone the additional responsibility that comes with subject leadership. Yet effective subject leadership is crucial to developing high-quality teaching and learning across all subject areas (and I'm sure you don't need me to tell you the importance that Ofsted places on it too.)

So is there anything subject leaders themselves can do to ease the burden?

In this blog, we explore different tried-and-tested strategies that can help, including: 

Throughout, headteachers and senior leaders will find reflective questions to support their thinking and help their subject leaders with finding time for subject leadership. We've also written a separate blog on this which can be found here: Building Time for Subject Leaders: Top Tips for Heads and Senior Leaders

How to create pockets of release time in the school day

One of the biggest challenges of subject leadership is conducting aspects of monitoring during the school day when lessons are taking place and when pupils are available to speak with. To do so, you often need releasing from your own classroom commitments, which can be challenging with school budgets being as stretched as they are. However, there are ways to find time within the school day that don’t require full lessons, mornings or afternoons to be covered, and with some careful organisation, you may be able to use the following short periods of time.

Using assemblies and collective worship

While you may not be able to observe classroom teaching during assemblies, you may be able to speak with a small group of pupils, providing they’re not absent for every single assembly. In fact, any assembly time where you’re not due to lead the assembly can be ideal to eke out some subject monitoring time as you can conduct book looks, investigate resources, examine displays, analyse data and so on. While it might only give you twenty minutes (if that), twenty minutes is better than zero minutes so it’s worth exploring whether you can use this slice of the school day to conduct subject leadership.

School leaders, ask yourself: Can you schedule assemblies carefully to allow subject leaders more time to attend to their duties? Could you make it a requirement that this pocket of time is used only for subject leadership, therefore allowing collaboration and a shared expectation?

Using specialist teaching sessions

If you have specialist teachers for certain subjects or if your setting uses support staff to teach certain sessions such as outdoor learning, there could be scope to utilise some of this time to conduct subject leadership. Before you do this, be aware of some of the pitfalls, including missing out on subject-specific CPD from experts, the need to be with your pupils to support teaching, learning and behaviour, and the special requirements around use of any funding, such as the PE and sports premium. 

However, it may be possible to utilise a session or part of a session every so often to conduct subject leader monitoring in other classes, including observing teaching which can be challenging to arrange.

School leaders, ask yourself: What specialist teachers do you have available and where could you utilise their skills to release subject leaders? Would there be any restrictions needed, e.g. a one-session limit per half term?

Know the strengths of your teaching assistant (if you have one) and utilise this

If you have a classroom teaching assistant who is skilled in a particular area of the curriculum, it’s possible to coordinate with them so they cover a lesson (or a portion of your lesson) that they feel skilled in, leaving you with a window of time to carry out in-person subject leader monitoring, such as observing teaching elsewhere. The same goes for if your setting has a skilled member of support staff who you may be able to 'borrow' to cover a portion of your teaching.

This not only makes planning for cover easier, but also your pupils are more likely to get the continuity of learning needed, particularly if you consider carefully what your class needs. For example, you may wish to teach the instruction/input of a new concept then ask the TA to take over once pupils move on to independent activities.

School leaders, ask yourself: Who in your setting has a skill in a particular curriculum area? Can they be supported to lead sessions in order to release subject leaders? Do you know the strengths of your members of support staff? If not, this Support Staff Skills Audit may help:

How to identify non-regular opportunities in your timetable and be creative in using them

School life can be chaotic and each day can provide unexpected challenges. However, sometimes the turbulent nature of school life provides us with unexpected opportunities so grasp them while you can!

Be flexible and creative with your timetabling

In primary, there's often the opportunity to collaborate closely with other classes, which sometimes means there's an opportunity to be released from classroom teaching for a brief period of time. Some examples of this might include if one class visits another to view the outcome of a topic and give feedback on it, or if classes are working together on a project.

While this may not happen often and consideration needs to be given to the teacher(s) who'll remain in class with more pupils than usual, it's possible that these opportunities can be taken once in a while, providing it's arranged and agreed with your colleagues. Of course, creating release time in this way can be done to benefit both teachers, allowing the other teacher their own release time at a later date.

School leaders, ask yourself: What projects, educational visits or special events are there in your school calendar? Is there scope in any of them to allow some subject leaders to be released for a portion of the time?

Plan carefully for when lessons could be covered

It sounds obvious but if you're not bound by a rigid monitoring schedule (more on this later), plan ahead so that your subject monitoring coincides with lessons where pupil learning is less disrupted if you ask someone else to cover. For example, if you are dedicating several lessons at the end of an art topic to allow pupils to complete their final independent work, some of the time could be used for subject monitoring. By exiting the classroom when pupils are working steadily and the person covering (often a teaching assistant) is all set to keep supporting pupils in their independent work, you can conduct monitoring in a short session then return to your class before the end of your lesson.

While this comes with its drawbacks because you're not in the classroom to support learners, it can be used sparingly to find release time and is preferable to having lessons covered where new learning is taught for the first time or where the subject matter is challenging or sensitive.

School leaders, ask yourself: Where could this method work in your school? Are there any subjects, topics or projects which would lend themselves to carefully planning for lessons to be covered? Are there any restrictions you may need to put in place to ensure teaching and learning quality remains high?

Use teaching assistant capacity when there's pupil absence

Some teaching assistants may work solely with a particular pupil. If the pupil they work with is absent, you may find yourself with a 'spare' member of staff who might be able to provide cover for portions of lessons. Decisions like this will need to be made as-and-when they occur and should always be based on pupils' needs but schools can be creative with opportunities like this to allow subject leaders much-needed release time.

School leaders, ask yourself: When pupils who need 1:1 support are absent, what does the member of support staff do? Could their time be used more effectively than it currently is?

For any subject leader, finding planned or unplanned release time for monitoring means that you also have to understand how to monitor, which can be particularly tricky if you're new to subject leadership. Honeyguide have the following supportive Initial Information Exploration pack that can help walk you through exactly how to do this if you're new to leading a subject or new to a school:


How to advocate for more subject leadership time

We explore monitoring schedules (and their rigidity), subject leadership teams and making best use of staff meetings and INSETs in our blog for senior leaders and heads: Building Time for Subject Leaders: Top Tips for Heads and Senior Leaders. This explores what school-wide changes leaders could make to create more capacity for subject leadership time, but without this taking place, you may find yourself with many subject leader monitoring tasks and no time in which to complete them. Here are some suggestions for how to advocate for more time.

Be realistic about the extra time you need and come with suggestions

We all know the strains of the job, and heads/senior leaders know the reality of the school budget too. So when a teachers comes and says "I need a full day's cover for subject leadership," my first thought as a head is, "why?", followed quickly by working out how much this would cost to cover. In an ideal world, this wouldn't be the case but in reality, a day's cover could be spent more effectively elsewhere when considering the whole-school picture.

This means that if you need classroom cover to complete subject leadership tasks, be realistic about how much you actually need - it's often a lot easier and/or cheaper to cover a lesson or two than a full day (or more!) When you make a request for release time, you can also use some of the suggestions above (along with any other ideas you have) about how you've solved part of the problem of covering lessons or finding time. This shows your dedication to your role and the school, but also that your request for release time is genuinely needed. 

School leaders, ask yourself: When you receive requests for subject leadership release time, how do you react? Do you work collaboratively with the subject leader to find time? When rejecting requests, do you look for alternative solutions?

Articulate why time for subject leadership is important

Fundamentally, subject leadership should improve pupil outcomes by shaping the curriculum, quality-assuring teaching and learning, and implementing lasting change where needed.

When advocating for more subject leadership time, this should be the driving force behind your request. If you can articulate that more subject leadership time to complete monitoring means you can support the school's goals in improving pupil progress and attainment (or any other school improvement priorities that your setting has), your request is more likely to be well received.

This also works when looking at priorities. For example, if you've been asked to conduct a learning walk, complete a staff survey, conduct a scrutiny of books and audit resources within a two-week time period, but have a full teaching timetable, you can open up a conversation about which of these is going to have the most impact on your school's pupils at that moment in time. This means you're still conducting subject leadership monitoring tasks, but it's purposeful and allows you to have more impact.

School leaders, ask yourself: When subject leaders ask for release time, do you explore how this links to your school's improvement priorities? If subject leaders have too many tasks and not enough time, how do you support them to prioritise?

Make suggestions on how time could be saved or created

As a head, I often relied on staff to make suggestions about what might work better. While not all suggestions were workable, I understood that my school's subject leaders knew the ins-and-outs of time constrictions for monitoring much better than I did, because I didn't have a full-time classroom commitment to also juggle.

For subject leaders, this means that if you identify where time could be used effectively (such as by using the suggestions in this blog), why not share them with your SLT or head? The worst that can happen is they're not able to implement the suggestion.

School leaders, ask yourself: What do you do when you receive suggestions from staff? Could you ask staff for their views in a staff meeting or via a survey?

Be honest if it's too much

If subject leadership, along with all of your other tasks, duties and responsibilities, is making your workload so high that it's unattainable, and if this is having an impact on your health and wellbeing, ensure you speak to your line manager or the relevant person in your school. This blog is aimed at finding snippets of time for subject leaders to make the job a little easier, but we can't solve the issue of insurmountable workload (as much as we'd desperately want to!) Make sure you look after yourself and seek support if you need it.

School leaders, ask yourself: Are you aware of the workload that staff have and if this is causing stress, pressure or affecting their wellbeing? Have you considered conducting a mental health and wellbeing audit?


Final thoughts

Schools can often get stuck in a rut when it comes to routines and schedules. If you hear yourself or others saying, "I need a half day for subject leadership but we're never given the time," think about breaking that half day into shorter time slots, some of which can found by using ideas in this blog or others ideas you might have developed because of it. While it might not be ideal, grabbing 10 minutes here or 20 minutes there is better than having 0 minutes.

As we all strive to find solutions to the challenge of limited subject leadership time, it's essential to remember the power of small steps. Ensure you run any ideas past your line manager or SLT and we hope that with a collaborative and creative approach, you'll find yourself with a little less work and a little more time.

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