Who would not want to be the best?

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In a school as a middle leader how can you and your department be the best?

When I took over my first science department it was in a challenging school, had failed OfSTED and was a ‘fresh start’. I remember the first conversation with the newly appointed  interim Headteacher, “we were going to build the most wonderful school that was going to make the biggest difference to our pupils”, I was hooked. Over the next two years, with the trust and confidence of the Headteacher  I was given autonomy and freedom of action to literally build our science department from scratch – new build, new team, new curriculum and a new way of doing things. Being a special forces Army officer you jump and relish such challenges. It was a hard grind but with a fantastic team we achieved some of the best results the school had ever seen.

It was not all plain sailing though. With the transition to a new Head she had a very different way of doing things, less trust and more control; More boss than leader. After only three months the new Head was not happy, the science department was not being run the way she wanted, we were not good enough. I, and my team, became very down hearted with the constant bashing of the department so I resolved, naïvely, that an external review would provide a level of reassurance and confidence that we were on the right track and that we were making good progress; How wrong was I!  The external review was led by a very confident but, as I discovered later, inexperienced consultant who had no leadership experience. The ‘review’ was very much done to us. It was not a pleasant experience, in fact most of my team wanted to walkout. The ‘inspector’ found a liturgy of “faults” that were presented to the SLT deeming us to be inadequate – no acknowledgement of the great strides we had made;  2 years’ work judged in two days – I wanted to cry, resign out of pride but I’m not a quitter and more importantly I had sold the vision to my team, “we were going to be excellent”. The meeting with the Head was not pleasant, the head seemed to relish it and the outcomes were used as a hammer to beat us with “why are you so bad, you’re the worst department”. What was rather sad was that at no stage did the SLT take any responsibility or offered any guidance or support. To rub salt into the wounds I was presented with a bill for the review of £1,200 for our troubles, to come out of my meagre budget.

Not a pleasant experience, it was hard to keep up moral and a positive perspective with my new and fragile team. My own fault really… But we did pick ourselves up and make changes and six weeks later we received the call!!

We were inspected by  a science expert (Clive Simmonds) who had for many years working in very challenging schools in Birmingham, and had been a head of science and science adviser. It was, for as best it could be, a positive experience, we as a department actually learnt and developed over the five days – he joined us for tea most mornings and we learnt and respected him greatly. In his final analysis we were deemed a good department with outstanding features and he recognised that we had made massive improvements over two years, “the leadership and management of science are very good. The subject co-ordinator has welded together inexperienced teachers into an effective team who share good practice.” The subsequent PANDA  (school assessment grade) three months later also confirmed the OfSTED findings we had moved from E* to A in less than three years! Again vindicated what we had been doing was right and that we were making a difference to our young people!

Reflecting on this experience a few things I drew out:

  • Understanding your Department is of paramount importance – as a subject leader you can be too close to the ‘chalk face’ to really understand what is going on so a different perspective can be helpful
  • Get a credible external perspective – an external view is really important, but must have specialist expertise and credibility, you must trust them too. What is more they bring a greater ‘world’ view that lays the foundations for improvement.
  • Learning experience – being treated with respect and part of the process was essential and helped us as a department grow and develop, being demonised was not helpful.
  • Your only as good as your team! Spend time to build and develop your team.


Some great foundations were laid, we had an excellent team. However sometimes you have to stand aside particularly as the Head and I never really saw eye to eye. I soon moved on to other challenges in other schools and ultimately became a science adviser myself, carrying out many departmental and school ‘reviews’ and inspections. As much as I felt reviews could be helpful they too often were judgemental and did not provide clear strategies on how to improve, basically telling schools what they already knew, but not how to fix it!

As part of my role as a school adviser I did all the training to be an OfSTED inspector but in the final assessment I could not cross to the ‘dark side’ as I realised I cannot be judgemental and walk away; I always have to try and ‘fix’ or support people to fix and improve. In essence always wanting to be the best.

So from being on both the receiving and the giving end of reviews and inspections I would say the following:

  • Must be a positive experience – reviews and inspections can be traumatic, they should be positive learning experiences, a time to  reflect and learn – not to traumatise and destroy.
  • Accountability with responsibility – yes we have to hold people to account but there must also be responsibility on the part of the SLT to provide support, training and development but most importantly encouragement
  • Ownership and Improvement strategies – we need to provide not just a measure of success but strategies for improving success
  • Learning and partnership – there needs to be a credible and respected partnership of collaboration between the adviser/inspector and the people involved, and it has to be an opportunity for the team to learn and grow

In my experience, I believe subject leaders want to do their best for their students, their team and their school. However the pressures on a subject leader are immense; Having to navigate curriculum changes,  health and safety, assessment changes, managing teachers and technicians, whole school pressures as well as a teaching load of 60-80%. No wonder it is difficult to recruit and even more difficult to retain good subject leaders.

Over the years I have found the best way to support subject leaders (particularly new to the role) and departments is the provision of an independent external subject specialist who has the experience, knowledge and confidence to mentor and support them to improve and be the best. They can add so much;

  • Improve leadership through mentoring and coaching
  • Improve curriculum provision by providing expertise advice and guidance on new and developing curriculum models and examination boards
  • Support and develop high quality teaching and learning by providing and modelling excellent practice
  • Provided independent expert advice on health and safety, practical work, behaviour management, technician support
  • Accountability – ensuring that there are proper and rigorous systems in place to support the schools aims and ambitions

In the final estimate no good teacher would dream of inspecting a pupils work, judge it to be inadequate, return 6-8 weeks later expecting it to have improved. So why do school inspections and reviews seem to follow this same pattern?


So if we want to build and strengthen our middle leaders and for them to be the best we need to provide support, guidance and ‘critical’ friend that can arguably only come from someone who has experience, expertise and credibility.

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