How special(ist) is your Line Manager?

Thank you to Simon Harrison, Headteacher of Crofton School and member of HA Secondary Committee, for this blogpost. In in Simon discusses line management by specialists and non-specialists, and points us in the direction of support for the latter to help them with their understanding of history as a school subject.

As a history teaching headteacher, I find it hard to keep my nose out of the history department at my school. But, as highly competent professionals and historians, the last thing they want is the headteacher interfering with the smooth running of the department. So, I have always asked other senior colleagues to line manage history and this presents a tough dilemma. A line manger with the same specialism, either history or more broadly with a humanities background, may bring a higher starting point for curriculum and teaching and learning discussions. However, if also part of the history teaching team, then lines of accountability can become blurred and there’s a danger of getting submerged in the detail and not seeing the broader strategic picture. A line manager without that expertise can bring a fresh eye to self-evaluation, and provide the greater level of support and challenge that all high performing teams need and deserve. However, to be genuinely useful to the history team, they must know enough about the subject discipline and what makes it different to other subjects, including their own. 

On balance, I prefer non-specialists to be line managers. Assuming the history subject leader can be relied upon to the be the subject expert (and if not, that’s a whole other problem that needs to be tackled!), they should be able to ensure their line manager is clear on the subject specific challenges, what a good curriculum and history lesson looks like, and articulate the subject disciplinary thinking that informs this. The line manager should be able to bring their broader skills to the role, ideally asking questions and sharing observations that may not naturally arise from within a team. Yet to assume this means the line manager does not need to know anything about history would be wrong. Aside from the professional curiosity I’d expect all senior leaders to have, a history department needs an appreciation from above of what makes it different from other subjects, and all senior managers should be sensitive to the implications this has for both departmental decisions and how these interact with delivering whole school strategies. 

Fortunately, there is good support available for the non-historian line manager. Tim Jenner, the Ofsted Subject Lead for History, has provided a number of useful briefing materials, the most useful of which is probably his keynote from the 2021 HA conference which can be found on the HA Website Mary Myatt and John Tomsett’s book “Huh: Curriculum conversations between subject and senior leaders” is also highly recommended. This covers a range of subjects, but it’s worth noting the title was chosen, as the authors explain, because ‘Huh’ “is the Egyptian god of endlessness. As Claire Hill so eloquently comments in her chapter, “Curriculum development is an ongoing process; it’s not going to be finished, ever.” And we believe that ‘Huh’ captures a healthy and expansive way of considering curriculum conversations.”

As you would expect, that Historical Association is also an excellent source of support for the non-specialist line manager. The “Masterclass for Senior Leaders.” is aimed primarily at non-specialist senior leaders and is designed to address these issues by blending practical and theory-based CPD to support non-subject specialist line managers of history departments. In this course, designed to fit around a busy workload, participants can expect to: 

  • Gain a working knowledge of effective curriculum design and teaching in secondary history
  • Build a meaningful understanding of assessment in history
  • Explore strategies to conduct subject evaluation through a subject-sensitive lens
  • Learn how to support history subject leaders to implement a rigorous curriculum

I highly recommend this as a source of support for any non-historian line manager. My history line manager certainly found it useful, in particular reflecting on the thinking required around assessment, sequencing and broader decisions about curriculum content being quite different in history compared to both his own subject specialism (art) as well as the other subjects he line manages. 

You’ll have your own reflections on line managers I’m sure, whether as classroom teacher or leader. There’s no right or wrong to the question of specialist or non-specialist, much will depend on school need. However, if we are going to ask non-specialists to support and challenge our history teachers to provide an exceptional experience for their students, equipping them with an insight into the wonderful subject discipline that we all know and love is a minimum requirement. If that’s not what you see from your line manager, I hope this gives you some ideas to take back to them. 

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