(source: Wikimedia Commons)
Many years ago, when local authority subject advisors stalked the earth (yes, that long since…) I had a wise and sanguine guy who would come in for a short while, take a reckoning on what we were up to, advise upon new curriculum developments on the horizon and put me in touch with other young-ish heads of geography for mutual benefit, and generally act as subject mentor and sage. At the end of one meeting, when I was bemoaning that we couldn’t do all the things I felt we needed to tackle as a department because one member was in his first year of teaching and learning the ropes, and another was being covered by a not very effective maternity supply – he gently mused: “It’s down to the health of the department. Yours has been healthy – , but it’s not at its strongest at the moment. You can’t be expected to do all that you’ve recently done. Cut down according to what you can manage. Once you’ve regained full health again – you can tackle the rest of your agenda.”
It was a salutory concept: the health of the body departmental; sometimes fit, raring to go and able to tackle a broad front of initiatives; other times operating with reduced capacity, not at full fitness, so in need of retrenchment back to core missions.
It’s been a useful metaphor in estimating what we can successfully tackle and on how broad a front, and distinguishing from the times when we would be unwise to spread ourselves too thinly and use up our reserves too rapidly. In advising other departments within my faculty and across the school, it’s been a prism of analysis to advise what they should focus upon that is within their capacity to be successful in, and avoid cultivating failure from the start by launching them on a series of actions, all of which may be justified by a whole raft of ‘needs’, but which they haven’t the capacity to meet from the human resources they can draw upon in that moment.
So, here’s a surgery room of department health types. The status can change overnight: a broken leg falling off a ladder at the weekend by a specialist A level teacher and not only the A level teaching, but the department’s whole timetable may need re-organising with ramifications throughout all years. But your department can equally move from the status of ‘sickly’ to that re-energised state when you realise you’ve ‘recovered’ and the endorphins are buzzing. Monitor the health status, be aware of it changing, and be mindful that you can influence the degree of resilience to ailment:
The ‘A1 Healthy’ department
The envy of all the other department heads in the school, and the favourite child of the head, who wants to know why all departments can’t be like your own. You have a team that’s buzzing: enthusiastic, energised – and energising, all with some experience under their belts but also self-driven to be better. And – they all get on with each other, but not so well that it’s a daily social club. There’s that spice of constructive competition between them; the look inside a colleague’s classroom, only to race off to their own to adapt, improve upon, – and then share at the next department meeting. Oh – and they respect your leadership. You are challenged, but purposefully and constructively by them. You are kept on your toes, but you are allowed to shake the reins and with the slightest of touches, they canter – or even gallop – to your bidding. This is what you always dreamed leading a successful deparment would be like. To change the animal imagary – it purrs.
The health benefits:
- You can tackle so much on so many broad fronts as a department. There is the energy and will to volunteer for curriculum re-writing of units, produce new resources, organise out-of-school visits and experiences for students. You can define each and every element that goes into making the best school experience in your subject – and work on them. All of them.
- Your team members feed off each other. You become greater than the sum of your parts as a department. Successes breed a fervour for more and there is an energy that you do not have to generate – simply steer.
- You are able to delegate and watch others grow as well as release time for yourself to tackle the things that really need to be focused on by a subject leader.
- You can rotate your team amongst the courses and groups. If your A level course divides into specialist units, you can either deploy to your team’s strengths, or make sure they can all double for someone else, so if you do lose an A level Biology teacher, there is another who taught the course successfully the previous year who can step into the gap.
The health risks:
The drive and energy can be euphoric. And yet – it is the athlete at their muscle-toned peak, who can exert that slight bit too much stress as they surge from the blocks, who first hears the ligament snap. With peak health, come risks:
- When all are working at their peak, if one fails, there can be a domino effect as their responsibilities are shared out amongst others in the team. If everyone is max-ing out, there’s little capacity for absorbing someone else’s share.
- Constructive competition is a thin-edged wire to walk. It doesn’t take much of a buffeting to slip off into destructive competition. Egos, as well as collaborations, can be bruised if slights are perceived and frustrations left to fester. A highly effective team can quickly become a stutteringly effective set of individuals looking to their own successes and reputations, which equally quickly erodes and fragments into an ineffective team.
- You can lose your touch as a department leader. It can become too easy, too self-regulating, too comfortable. It’s the challenges which force us to hone our skills in leadership. Too few of them and we can forget what we need to do to keep the fuel flowing down the pipes to the engine. We can ease off into reduced effectiveness.
The ‘A1 health’ department never stays as such for long. It’s a temporary feature. A happy coincidence of events, serendipity or – worked for, maintained for a while, then – as ice held in a closely clenched hand – dripping away the tighter we claim it. Good folk get promoted away, some become parents for the first time and other priorities take hold, someone takes up a leading pastoral role in the school and has less time to devote to the subject. Enjoy it if it happens. But never plan for it being a permanent state of affairs.
The ‘distinctly below par’ department.
A likely condition for most departments on a repeated basis. You’re functional, even effective in some elements, but debilitated by one or two conditions that could be improved upon, but unlikely to be soon under present circumstances.
This is the department with sequential interruptions in staffing development: new teachers who have to be coached through their early years, only for them to leave and have to be replaced and the high-intensity training phase repeated without ever getting the eventual benefit of ‘pay-back’. It’s the almost permanent ‘supply’ teacher covering a long-term absence due to ill-health or r0ll-over maternity-covers. It’s the position that no-one suitable applied for, so the deputy head and an assistant head are covering the timetable – but really, it’s not their top priority in the day. It’s the department which is having to support a new HoD who isn’t exactly living up to the promise shown at interview and is struggling in the role.
The response here should be not so much remedial action to cope with the debilitation, but preventative medicine to try to reduce the occasions, or anticipate their likely occurence and plan for them in advance:
- consider how the formative years of new entrants can be managed so they don’t want to leave – either because they’ve been exhausted be the process, or leave for grass-is-greener reasons. Keep hold of the talent you’ve helped to grow. Easier said than done, but the consequences of them leaving may well be even less easy in recruitment-constrained times.
- the long-term supply cover might not be avoidable, but can be eased by making sure there are comprehensive schemes of work, lesson plans and hyperlinked resources available to hand over. The style of teaching may – by necessity – change, but the content and coverage may be secured if you have it all in place. It’s about providing the students with the best curriculum the department has developed irrespective of the classroom they’re in or the teacher delivering it. And see Supply Teachers as part of your remit to develop and share with them the best of what you do – and why. They are likely to have been in a number of schools. Use that – ask them what they’ve seen elsewhere that has been effective and see them as a reservoir of experience to tap into.
- Keep retired or part-time members of the department on your contact list and see if they would be prepared to come in a day or two extra. Give effective supply teachers a warm, inclusive experience whilst they are with you so that if you need to call on them again, they’re more likley to opt for your department rather than find another school to go to.
- having members of SLT teaching in your department can be frustrating when they aren’t able to take on a share of the necessary tasks within the department, ask for lesson resources ten minutes before the lesson because “…that meeting with a parent went on for far longer than I anticipated..” , and haven’t stuck to the assessment schedule because… well “what – there’s an assessment schedule?” However, they can be rich allies and fruitful resources. Because of their responsibilities in the school they will want to be able to be seen to cut it effectively in the classroom. They can share the strengths of your team with other departments they manage, and bring a flow of useful suggestions from others to yours – as long as you ask them for it. They may need a crash-course in what you want from them, but that can be useful in forcing you to decide what are the key elements of your subject and the experience their students will get from it, that you draw non-negotiable lines on; yes – they may have a host of other things to do in the week, but ‘these’ are the things you insist are done right, done well, and according to department policy. There is value in being forced to isolate ‘the essentials’ and then communicate them with clarity and justification.
- every Head of Department starts as a ‘new’ HoD at some stage. Some grow magnificently into the role quickly, some are slow-burns but get there incrementally, and others struggle and become painful to watch as their trajectory fails to take off. But if there is a planned whole-school mentoring and coaching procedure for new HoDs the process can be guided from the start and ‘chance’ should play no part. The offer of the job is too often seen as the end of the new HoD appointment process: it should be merely the end of the beginning and followed by a two-year (minimum) development programme that assesses need and provides support, feedback and guidance. (see a ‘Checklist for new HoDs’ here).
There are grades of ‘on the treatment bench’ scenarios, but the most serious has to be the ‘life-support system’ phase a department may find itself in. It may be that this is when the HoD has to draw back to define the ‘essentials’ that she or he can provide themselves when there is an absence of effective functionality in the rest of the department for various reasons. The worst thing they can do then is to burn themself out by trying to do everything for every class that they will try to do for their own, or maintain the range of departmental initiatives that historically they have presumed to be core. Sometimes the most they can do is secure their own well-being, hold the line with their own classes, and ask for assistance from whereever else it can be gleaned. That is where reassurance from the head and deputies is vital – to reassure them that they are in a situation not of their own making, that they are not being judged on the outcomes beyond that which they can reasonably influence and that whatever assistance that can be provided, shall be. It’s about protecting the place from where the resuscitation will emanate and shutting down non-essential systems. When a HoD is facing a catastrophic loss of functionality in the rest of the department the most effective assistance will be:
- deciding along with SLT on what can reasonably be maintained, protected and secured in terms of student experience.
- seeking assistance from other departments, either in the school or from similar subject departments in collaborative neighbouring schools
- protecting as much of the HoDs time as possible to fulfill the agreed essentials of the role by covering a tutor-group or offering extra admin. support for example
- keeping governors in the loop about what is happening and what is being done about it
- reassuring the HoD that this will pass – that it is temporary – and that the situation will improve in time. Offer hope as well as sympathy.
- being creative in finding solutions to the situation. The ‘obvious’ ones were probably tried – and failed – as you were descending to this point. You need to look at solving it differently.
If the situation is due to the HoD themself and all the support systems have failed, it may still be critical if you cannot appoint a suitable candidate to replace them; a situation becoming increasingly common with shortages in key subjects and a reluctance of good quality candidates to apply for positions of responsibility. The options here include:
- sharing the role amongst younger members of the department. Challenge them to grow into the role.
- attracting (paying) a HoD in a neighbouring school (or part of an academy chain) to oversee the essential matters of the department on a temporary basis
- drawing the department under the oversight of another, successful department within the school in a faculty structure
- ascribe a member of SLT to manage the department and reallocate their role to others within the school on a temporary basis
After almost three decades of running a faculty, I’ve seen departments (including my own) run the full spectrum of conditions. They can change remarkably quickly and the only thing that is certain is that none of them remain the same for long. Departmental health is dynamic; it’s fluid. As in much health care, time spent on preventative medicine rarely shows profit – because you invest in the very avoidance of situations that would prove costly – to staff, the school and to students. But as a treasurer of a charitable body, I once found the need to carry out contingency planning absolutely transferable to my role in school. Think of worst-case scenarios, anticipate that some of them will occur, and plan for them. None of us have tip-top health at all times, but we can avoid certain conditions, minimise the duration of suffering of others, and make sure the system is resilient enough to fight off the worst of infections.
As with departments, so with schools. As institutions the ‘health condition’ of a school is likely to vary over time. There will be times when a school can take on robust and aspirational challenges; at others it is a question of refocusing on the core and maintaining key systems. Does the current inspection procedure have the insight and wisdom of that geography advisor of all those years ago? Without being sympathetic to the health of the patient, the medicine proscribed may prove ineffective to the condition – and serve to diminish the patient who is in an already-weakened condition through no fault of their own.