The end of the Easter holidays signposts the end to my first year as a Head of Faculty. After the post fell vacant at my school, my mind starting churning with ideas for how I would love to move the faculty forward, what impact I could have and how exciting it would be to be able to make a difference across so many subjects. I had previously been a head of subject at this school and my last, so this was the next step – even so, it felt like a big one!
With every leadership role there has to be this oxymoronic inner balance between having the confidence to believe that you can be the one to call the shots, alongside a relentless self-criticism that makes you think and rethink your decisions to ensure they are the right ones. This is where research comes in.
By using the expertise of educational researchers and leaders who have already explored the problems I faced, I have felt more confident and effective as a Head of Faculty. In this blog I have outlined the educational research that has supported my decision making when setting out the faculty improvement plans, supporting members of the team and developing myself as a leader. I hope they are of use to you!
1. Faculty Improvement Plans
Our improvement plan looks at ways to develop teaching and schemes of work (this will be the focus of a later piece), but the key area I want to talk about here is the way to use research to create an improvement plan that supports pupils and their learning by outlining key resources and the importance of an understanding of action research.
The most widely known resource for ways to support pupils learning is the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit. The easy to use format helps you identify the ways in which you can support learners. For us the key was metacognition and self-regulation. The underpinning principle that pupils should take ownership of their own learning has underpinned our new approach to homework, lesson planning and behaviour.
For us the key focus was bridging the gap between Pupil Premium (PP) pupils and the non-PP cohort. Last year there was a considerable gap in our results across two of our three GCSE subjects so something needed to be done. As the PP cohort in any school is so varied that it is impossible to treat them as a homogeneous group, we focused on using different strategies with individual pupils based on communication with parents, detailed analysis of assessments and teachers’ professional judgements. To keep workload down, teachers are completing a short summary of how they are supporting children in their lessons termly. This is then monitored by subject leaders, if there are no improvement, we step in… if not, we carry on. Again, the EEF guidance supported our actions if pupils showed no signs of improvement, as well as high quality teaching with support of books such as Mark. Plan. Teach by Ross Morrison McGill. I also very much value subject specific books such as Teaching and Learning History 11-18; Understanding the Past by Alison Kitson, Chris Husbands and Susan Stewart.
If you’re reading this and thinking it sounds totally obvious… well yes it is, but never underestimate the power of the Hawthorn Effect! The simple act of having more conversations and actions associated with these pupils has made a significant difference. PP predictions have improved drastically across the faculty and the subject with the lowest PP pass rate last year now shows no gap in this Year 11 cohort (based on teacher predictions).
The support areas of development within subjects and faculties, an understanding of action research and its methods is both helpful and ethical. Having undertaken action research as part of my master’s degree has helped immeasurably with being able to measure the impact of actions taken within the faculty to improve pupil outcomes and carry out any small scale investigations effectively. Andrew Townsend’s Action Research: The Challenges of Understanding and Changing Practice has a chapter about linking research and practice which is very useful. Phil Wood and Joan Smith’s book Educational Research; Taking the Plunge also has a focus on research bias which is helpful helping you identify where your own biases may be. Very useful for when answering the question ‘is it actually working, or do I just really want it to?’
2. Developing the Team
Essential in gaining support from your team is the understanding that you are only asking them to do things that are essential to and shown to impact, the progress of children. If we are asking our team to complete data tasks or spend hours of their time marking, it is only fair that what we are asking is based on evidence and that we have considered their workload as part of the policy making process. I am lucky enough to work in a school where the marking policy allows flexibility within faculties and this may not be the case in your context, but there are always we can take to ensure effective in-faculty monitoring, as well a staff development and support.
Teacher workload has been a government focus this year, with three independent teacher workload projects focused on; marking, planning and teaching as well as data management (details here). In 2016 the EEF published a review of marking strategies and the wider evidence shows that there are ways to ensure that pupils get meaningful feedback without teachers having to write out lengthy comments over and over again in books. Instead, whole class marking (thank you mrthorntonteach, you have saved my weekends), the use of comment banks as well as whole class self-review strategies such as comparing their own answers with a full mark answer you have written, ensure that pupils get the opportunity to improve, but your staff are not overworked. There is no evidence to support that idea that teachers writing out full sentences in books over and over again is more effective than any of the strategies listed about. Let’s not even start on different coloured pens…
Another important area of leadership is supporting teacher resilience and there is educational research to support us in this. There are three key ways in which middle leaders can support teacher resilience; understanding that the way in which teachers will need support varies depending upon their career stage and life phase (Day, C., Stobart, G., Sammons, P. and Kington, A.: 2006), acting as a role model with regards to work life balance (Briggs: 2003) and also being a constant within a system of change.
Flintham (2008) explores the concept of a leader as a ‘reservoir of hope’. Within this example, a middle leader can carry out what Flintham believes is core to educational leadership (although his article is actually about headship), by ‘maintain[ing] the coherence of a collective vision and integrity of values, and to preserve [a] sense of hope when faced with challenging circumstances’. (Flintham, 2008; 58)
3. Developing as a Leader
A value research for middle and senior leaders is membership of BELMAS. It is free for the first year and there are numerous journals dedicated to different aspects of educational leadership and monthly Twitter chats on lots of different topics. I also cannot state how helpful it is to follow Pearson’s weekly policy summaries. Using these resources and spending time once a week to see what is new in the world of education research can support the decisions you make on a regular basis.
It is quite telling that developing myself as leader has come last here. After a year in post, I can see why more experienced colleagues have warned me that self-development can often get forgotten. It is simply too easy to put other jobs, commitments etc. above yourself. Ignoring your own development, is however, a big mistake that could lead you and perhaps others to wonder why people should be following you in the first place. For me, the big focus was creating time and space for the productive use of self-reflection.
Taking the time to sit alone in my office once a week and reflect on all its events has been of immeasurable value. Most of the time this has been after school on a Friday evening or early one morning before meetings as these are the times I am least likely to be needed by pupils to colleagues to help with other important things. In some ways it feels selfish to take time away whilst at work to focus on myself, however, the negative impact it has on my ability to make judgements and put things into perspective becomes all too clear when I do not find time to do this in the middle of a busy term. There is such a focus on this in the literature for teaching training and trainee teachings, but less about how working professionals can continue effective reflection long-term. If you are interested in working with academics and teachers to develop this further, please join our BELMAS Research Interest Group exploring the issue.
A practical and very help book to support this is Caroline Bentley-Davies’ How to be an Amazing Middle Leader. At the end of each chapter, there are short activities and reflection tasks that you can pick and choose from as part of your reflection. Is very helpful for when you’re not sure what questions you could be asking yourself!
Being a new Head of Faculty can be daunting and in many ways isolating. You are not solely a classroom teacher anymore, but neither are you one at the top making the big decisions. This space in the middle can feel lonely, but through the use of educational research, you can feel more secure in the decisions you make, be supportive of your colleagues and persuade your line-manager to give your new ideas a try! When you’re new to post, you can feel uncertain or inexperienced, but with the regular reading of educational research, you can feel assured that you are equipping yourself with the tools you need to succeed. Good luck if you’re in your first year of faculty leadership!