Help! I'm a New Subject Leader!

It can feel nerve-wracking when you’re new to leading a subject area - and we’ll tell you a little secret - we still feel like that as experienced leaders. Whether you're new to the role or an established subject leader, it's crucial to remember one thing amidst all the jargon and Ofsted talk – your primary goal is to enhance and improve the learning experience of this subject area in your school. Every action you take should be motivated by, and aligned with, this purpose.

So let’s look into the role of subject leadership in primary schools and secondary schools in more detail, and share some of our top tips along the way too. 

Looking for a specific area?

👉 What is a subject leader?

👉 Where should I begin as a subject leader?

👉 What do I do once I've found out more details about the subject I lead?

👉 How can I develop teachers' subject knowledge as well as my own understanding of the subject?

👉 How can I keep workload manageable and realistic?

👉 What about subject deep dives?

👉 Top tips for subject leaders

What is a subject leader?

A primary or secondary school subject leader, also known as a curriculum leader or subject co-ordinator, is a teacher whose role is to lead a specific academic subject within a school.

The primary responsibilities of a subject leader include:

  • The development and review of the curriculum for their specific subject to ensure it’s current, relevant and aligned with national curriculum standards.
  • Collaboration with other teachers to ensure a cohesive and progressive learning experience for pupils.
  • Staying updated to provide guidance and support to other teachers in their subject area, facilitating professional development for teachers.
  • Overseeing the assessment processes related to their subject, including the creation of assessments, analysis of pupil performance data and implementation of strategies to address areas of improvement.
  • Involvement in managing resources such as textbooks, teaching materials and technology relevant to their subject.
  • Working to maintain and enhance the quality of teaching and learning in their subject, conducting monitoring activities and fostering a culture of continuous improvement.

It’s likely that all national curriculum subjects in your school will have a subject leader, and some members of staff may lead more than one subject area. So where should you begin in this role?


Where should I begin as a subject leader?

The key to subject leadership is knowing the subject well in your school.

Regardless of the age or phase that you teach, it’s vital that you take the time to explore how your subject looks across all age ranges. Delving into your subject area through initial information exploration will require you to look into the intent, implementation and impact of your subject area, which will include collating documentation and evidence.

If you’re new to the school or leading the subject area, a good starting point is to look at and explore:

  • Documentation, such as the school improvement plan (SIP), self-evaluation form (SEF), curriculum policy and curriculum statement.
  • Professional dialogue, such as pupil and staff voice, and meeting with other leaders.
  • Monitoring intent through long- and medium-term planning scrutiny.
  • Monitoring implementation through learning walks, learning environments and resourcing.
  • Monitoring impact through book looks and work scrutiny.

Looking for support on this process? We've got our popular Monitoring Start Point: Initial Information Exploration Pack which gives you all the guidance and templates you need to carry out the process, plus a helpful blog which gives top tips about the process.

What do I do once I've found out more details about the subject I lead?

From here, you're going to want to create an action plan (or similar) to outline any changes you want to make. While "creating an action plan" might sound like opening up a word processor and making a quick plan, if you do this, you'll likely end up with a plan that doesn't lead to meaningful change or that remains incomplete at the end of the year.

As well as a subject action plan, there are various other tasks associated with subject leadership, which are easy to overlook when you're new to the role. Completing a subject leader checklist will help to ensure you know the tasks to complete in your first week, half-term and term as subject leader.

The following resources and blog can help you with both forward-planning and organisation, giving you guidance around the processes as well as ready-made, editable templates.

By exploring this information as your initial step, you’ll begin to identify what is already working well and what needs to become a priority over the term or year ahead. From this, you can begin to create a subject action plan that not only aligns with the priorities of the school as a whole, but is specific to your subject area too. 

How can I develop teachers' subject knowledge as well as my own understanding of the subject?

As primary school teachers who can teach 15 (or more!) different subject areas a week, and secondary school teachers who are regularly asked to teach outside of their subject specialism, we know very well that secure teacher subject knowledge doesn’t just happen.

To enable our teams to meet and exceed the Teachers’ Standards in the subject areas in which they teach, we as subject leaders need to have a firm understanding of the gaps in subject knowledge or where subject knowledge confidence may lack. This is where the role of monitoring comes into play - it's an essential part of the exploration process to help map out your next steps.

Teacher development is an important aspect of your role as a subject leader. Exploring the CPD needs of your staff team is an important step, so utilise a subject confidence audit and staff CPD survey to find out where the gaps in subject knowledge are.  

From here, you can plan your CPD cycle to help upskill your teaching team, which might include whole-team training on a specific aspect of subject knowledge, or could include coaching and mentoring to support individuals.

When it comes to your own subject knowledge, it’s important that you have effective knowledge of the subject matter in order to be able to guide and advise your colleagues. Check if there are any areas within your school's curriculum plans that you’re unsure about then conduct additional reading or look into any courses that are available. Building this kind of expertise will take time so don’t feel it has to be done all at once.

Joining a subject association is another great way of building the subject knowledge you need as well as gaining up-to-date research and information in your subject area. See what's available by browsing this free guide from The Council for Subject Associations website.

This and so much more can be found in our Monitoring Start Point: Teacher Subject Knowledge pack. You can also download these How Deep is Your Subject Knowledge? Posters for free to display in the classrooms around your school to get staff thinking about prior knowledge, instruction, knowledge and skills acquisition, and assessment.


How can I keep workload manageable and realistic?

It can be tempting to tackle everything at once, but this can also be incredibly overwhelming and may not actually ensure the issues you spot can be effectively addressed. We recommend setting out a timetable for yourself as part of your ongoing monitoring to enable you to look at each aspect of your subject area independently, before triangulating all of the evidence that you find. This also gives you a chance to consider whether you need more (or maybe less) information from certain areas or sources.

Other time management techniques can also really help you, so be sure to use them.

  • Remember your goal - it’s to gather initial information at this stage.
  • Create a schedule based on your commitments - what tasks will fit best at which times?
  • Stick to your schedule - what could derail you? How can you prevent this?
  • Use productivity techniques - what can help you work smarter and faster?
  • Say “no” when needed - unless it’s an emergency, why can’t you utilise the time you’ve allocated to subject leadership?
  • Delegate tasks when possible - can the SLT or other leaders do this task instead of you? Do they already have the information you need?

It can be tempting to use your PPA time to do subject monitoring. Remember, PPA is there to support you as a classroom teacher to plan, prepare and assess. You already know that PPA time is not enough to complete all of these jobs though, so you might find it helpful to keep PPA dedicated to your classroom commitments and find other ways to monitor the subject you lead.


What about subject deep dives?

While this isn’t, and shouldn’t, be the key focus of your role as a subject leader, we understand how daunting the thought of a subject deep dive can feel. Whether it’s a subject deep dive with Ofsted or an internal deep dive, treat this as an opportunity to celebrate the work you have undertaken in your role as subject leader, and identify the next steps you intend to take. 

For more detail on deep dive questions for subject leaders and the process, take a look at our blog - Deep Dives with Ofsted: What to Expect. You can also browse the deep dive resources on site - we've got one for every curriculum subject.

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

Top tips for subject leaders

We’ve compiled some of our collaborative top tips and valuable pieces of advice for subject leaders below. What could you take forward to support yourself?

  1. Familiarise yourself thoroughly with your school's curriculum. Gain insights into how your specific subject aligns with the broader curriculum, enabling you to identify the interconnected threads and connections between subjects.
  2. Get to know the intricacies of your subject, understanding its sequence and the knowledge, skills and vocabulary taught in each year group. If you teach key stage 2, grasp how your subject evolves from early years, and vice versa for early years teachers in a primary setting. This knowledge enables you to appreciate the progressive nature of prior learning and address questions such as "What links are there between your subject and the rest of the curriculum?" and “How do you ensure progression in your subject?”
  3. Stay informed and regularly update your subject knowledge using relevant documents, including research reviews. 
  4. Effectively manage your time and establish a monitoring schedule at the onset of the year. If you oversee multiple subjects, prioritise and shine a spotlight on each subject to ensure none are overlooked.
  5. Remember to assess your findings and develop action plans to implement improvements. Demonstrating the impact you have as a subject leader is essential for communicating your achievements to all stakeholders.

Take subject leadership one step at a time, be an advocate for your subject area across the school, and don’t be afraid to ask for subject leadership time when you need it.

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