In at the deep end? Swimming lessons for newly-appointed Subject Leaders

In this blog, Catherine Priggs and Hugh Richards offer some ideas for newly-appointed Subject Leaders of History, organised month by month for the first year. Inevitably this isn’t an exhaustive list, and whilst context will determine the timing of some of the points mentioned below, the aim of this blog is to help newly-appointed Subject Leaders to reflect on key moments. Cat and Hugh are part of the Historical Association’s ‘Subject Leader Development Programme’, for aspiring and existing Subject Leaders of History (see the bottom of this blog post for further details).

Whether you’ve been appointed to the role of Subject Leader in your existing school, or you’re moving to a new setting, we believe that you’ll be able to make use of the content below. It’s worth pointing out a couple of key ways in which starting at a new school will mean you have a different experience. Firstly there are all the ‘new school’ things to get your head around, such as email systems, logins, photocopiers, formal procedures, and age-old unwritten customs (such as staff room seat territory!). There is also subject knowledge. If the A Level or GCSE specifications at your new setting are topics you haven’t taught at that level, or haven’t taught at all, clearly you will need to work on this. In this blog we will highlight the good times to work on this sort of thing, but if you are stepping up in your existing school you may be able to accelerate aspects of the month by month guide (such as strategic thinking).

This blog is written for those beginning their roles in September; if this is not the case, you’ll want to adapt it. If you start mid-year strategic thinking should still underpin how you approach the development of your curriculum and colleagues, it just won’t fit into a neat September to July model. The core, non-moveable, tasks associated with each month (e.g. the NEA deadline) will obviously be the same.

It’s likely your Line Manager will talk you through many of the points mentioned below, but if you approach your first year proactively, ready for the core aspects of your role, you’ll make a great impression.

A top tip: make a document that shows what you’ve been doing each week so that you can refer to it as a checklist next year. Hugh’s school does this centrally – here’s an idea of what this could look like (please ignore the school-specific acronyms!):

A month by month guide

July

Visit if you can (ideally a couple of times). It’s likely you’ll have a whole school staff induction session, and hopefully, this will land in the summer term prior to your start. Make sure you’ve got everything you need from this to hit the ground running on day one in September (essentially, gain knowledge of all the ‘new school’ things). This will mean you can concentrate on your curricular vision and your team.

But try to dig a bit deeper than the generic induction sessions and do the following:

  • Talk to your Line Manager and Headteacher about how they perceive your subject team. You might want to try to build a picture of what they think your team’s major priorities are but don’t commit yourself to anything until you’ve had time to fact-find yourself!
  • Get the most up-to-date and detailed school calendar you can.
  • Put the major academic waypoints in a new planner: assessment weeks, data entries, mock exams etc. Once you’ve done this, flick back a couple weeks in your planner from key dates and, e.g. make a note of the need to send a mock paper in for print…
  • Find out about trips: are you taking over planning? What do you need to know? If there’s a trip not currently running that you’d like to run, do you have leeway to do so?
  • Get a hard copy of any core textbooks, curriculum documents etc., and don’t rely on logins as the IT support might be unavailable once the school closes for summer.
  • Ask about August: what results software might you be expected to use, and how are results ordinarily communicated to subject teams? Some schools might require the existing Subject Leader to conduct results analysis (do find out!), but even if this is the case it’s likely you’ll also want to conduct your own.
  • Have all resources you’ll need for the autumn term been purchased?
  • Most importantly: meet your team. It’s essential you know whom you’ll be working with. Will you have any ECTs or ITTs? Who’ll be mentoring them? Did an existing team member go for your post? How will you approach this? What’s the experience of your team? Are you working with a team of subject-specialists? Do any members of your team teach outside History? There are many more questions you’ll want answered so do plan for them before your visit.

August

  • Don’t do too much! Rest. But if you do need to build subject knowledge for a topic or unit, the summer might present a nice opportunity.
  • Conduct some results analysis before term starts and look out for relevant examiners’ reports. You will also want to sign up for exam board updates so you’re not caught out if there’s a change or adaptation to one of your specifications.

September

  • Get the operational side right. Build trust and support from your team by removing or reducing barriers to their classroom delivery (such as equipment, printed resources, behaviour).
  • Focus on your classroom practice. Your team will want to know that their leader is an effective and inspiring Teacher of History, and they will expect you to lead by example.
  • Request regular meetings with your Line Manager if they are not offered. It’s essential to build a positive working relationship with your Line Manager so that you can ask for support when it’s needed. Likewise this will make them more inclined to want to support you.
  • Speak to your Line Manager about whole-school systems which are likely to cause upset if you get it wrong. For example, find out if the school has a policy on learning walks, how often are staff observed, and how else the quality of teaching is monitored at whole-school level. Knowledge of these types of things will mean you’ll be more informed about how to approach evaluating teaching at subject-level.
  • You should also speak to your Line Manager about your school’s appraisal system. Were your team set targets in the summer, or will you need to do this in the autumn term? Are you responsible for setting targets for your entire team, or do you have any post holders who also do this?
  • After a week or two, ‘get your head up’ a little and look at the rest of the term. Things like Open Evenings can creep up on you, especially in a new school! Talk to your team and other Subject Leaders about how these have worked in the past and what you might need to prepare.
  • Go and meet the other Subject Leaders in your school. It’s essential to gain understanding of what it means to be a Middle Leader in your school, and not just a Subject Leader of History.
  • Go and meet the finance team and/or Resources Director. This is essential for obvious reasons!
  • Finally, build positive relationships with the cleaners, caretakers, and reprographics staff. They will make your life a lot easier and are really important to the smooth running of a school.

October

  • Prioritise the development of trust and relationships with your team because lots of the things you’ll want to do in the autumn term will rely on you having a positive working relationship. Start to evaluate your team. You might find these questions helpful, or you could begin by talking to lots of pupils. You’ll also want to start popping into your team’s lessons, if you haven’t started doing so already, but remember, how you approach your first learning walks and/or work scrutiny is crucial. Once you think you’ve got an accurate picture of your team, plan for their professional development. Planning ahead will avoid your professional development from becoming reactive and allow you to keep revisiting key priorities.
  • It’s also worth having honest conversations with your team about their personal priorities. This could tie into target-setting for whole-school appraisal, and ensure the targets set are subject-specific and focused on your team’s curriculum thinking and delivery.
  • Have a look at subject-specific conferences on offer for the academic year and begin to make your requests to SLT. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to take your whole team to a subject conference this is a superb way to build team culture, and hone in on and work on your team’s priorities.
  • Take stock during the October half-term. What’s going well, and what isn’t? What haven’t or aren’t you doing that you committed yourself to do? Have any of your priorities changed?

November

  • Keep your strategic time management going. Keep an eye on what’s on its way for you and your team.
  • Find out about how the options process works and if there are particular rules or tasks for Subject Leaders.

December

  • Check in with your Exams Officer and ask them what they need from you at different stages in the year. It’s really useful to have a strong working relationship with this person. Find out their deadlines and meet them faultlessly!
  • Do something nice for your team to thank them for their efforts over the last term. Buy them a coffee, or even better, buy them some scholarship!
  • Use the Christmas break to think about the whole-school visibility of your team. Does History contribute to the whole school beyond practice in classrooms? If not, how could you?

January

  • It’s time to think about timetabling… possibly one of the most contentious things you’ll do!
  • Find out your role in the process, for example, how will you work with the person in charge of timetabling for the whole school, and what input will you have? Also find out about the unwritten rules of timetabling at your school. For example, are your team used to making requests, and what degree of consultation happens? Has one of your team been promised the opportunity to teach a particular year group? Is there a topic at A Level that one member of your team really doesn’t want to teach? Is there a part-time member of staff in your team who wants to change their days?
  • Timetabling is inextricably linked to your team’s workload and wellbeing, so getting ahead of this is crucial.
  • Input levels for Subject Leaders varies school-to-school, but do try to find out if there are formal or informal ways you can influence it.
  • When you come to timetabling try not to promise anything, be as honest and open as you can, and timetable with integrity. If you end up with a dream of a timetable (e.g. no Friday period 5, the two Year 9 classes which have no behaviour issues, or a heavy load of your favourite Key Stage) your team will not thank you! Equally, you don’t need to take all the compromises on your own shoulders. Share these around.
  • Don’t share too much too soon. Many changes will happen throughout the timetabling process, some of which you’ll have no control over. If you tell colleagues it’s worked out well for them, reneging on your word will not come across well!

February

  • Check in with your finance team. Does your budget expire before the financial year end? Will any spare carry over? If it doesn’t, find out how much you have and spend it while you can! 
  • If you deliver A Level, remember that you’ll need to get the NEA marked and moderated before the deadline (15th May). Talk to other History and non-History Subject Leaders, as well as your Line Manager, about how to do this process rigorously. Even if you have done it before, there may be things the Subject Leader did behind the scenes. Consider making a request for protected time for standardisation and moderation.

March

  • Think about your planning priorities for next year. You don’t need to wait for exam results to draw up a key priority (maximum two!) with your team. If you establish the priorities for September at this point you can use subject team meetings to work on any professional development your team needs before using the summer gained time to work on resources.

April

  • This month is likely to be focused on getting ready for exams. Support your team and keep an eye on how much extra they are being asked to do.
  • Make sure you know what your responsibilities are as Subject Leader during the exam season. Check this with your Line Manager and the Exams Officer.

May

  • Prioritise getting your pupils calmly and confidently through the exams.
  • If exam class teachers are absent in the build-up to exams, try to get specialists from your subject team into those lessons, redirecting cover to Key Stage Three for these few weeks.
  • Think about what you’ll do before and after each exam. Staff presence prior to exams can settle pupils’ nerves, and being there for pupils after exams will demonstrate how supportive your team is and give you an insight to pupils’ perceived performance.
  • This is also the time to introduce your team to your priorities for September. You may want to begin to use these to inform your team’s professional development, something which you could use gained time for.
  • If you deliver A Level remember to check the paperwork needed in time for the NEA submission deadline, as well as ensuring it’s thoroughly marked and moderated.
  • Encourage your team to have a break during the May half term. The end being in sight can make June and July exhausting!

June

  • The exam season is nearly over… Keep going!
  • Be conscious of any members of your team who haven’t got much gained time and what you can do to support them. The less gained time a teacher has, the more Key Stage Three exam marking they have as a result, so could you redistribute Key Stage Three marking?

July

  • Use gained time to work on curriculum development.
  • If your school
  • Try to look at the classrooms you’re responsible for. Have a clear-out and smarten them up before September.
  • Create space to have 1:1 conversations with members of your team. Prompt them to reflect on the academic year, and to look ahead.
  • Find a way to celebrate the efforts of your team. An end of year BBQ, meal or coffee morning, is a lovely way to say thank you, and builds collegiality.

Finally, good luck! If you have questions about subject leadership in History, we are always happy to offer any ideas we have on Twitter via the links in the paragraph below.

If you have found this type of practical advice helpful, do consider joining in with the Historical Association’s ‘Subject Leader Development Programme’. Details can be found here, and you’re welcome to ask questions via events@history.org.uk or on Twitter to Hugh or Catherine, both of whom are SLDP course leaders.

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