Being a Head of Department

I saw a blog earlier today by a Head of Department offering advice to her younger self on how to be a good HoD. It’s generally full of good advice and important points. For me, however, the value of those good points was slightly undercut by the fact that it appeared written very much from the “leadership” perspective of being a HoD. I felt that, if I squinted a bit in places, I’d be able to see lessons on “leadership” from courses like “Leading from the Middle”, and the woeful National Professional Qualification for Middle/Senior/Junior/Bottom/Top Leaders as inflicted on so many blameless teachers. I’ve since had a PM chat with the author, and she’s a wonderful person. We do, however, disagree a bit on where the focus of the HoD role might be, and the extent to which “leadership” as it is currently perceived in the education system, is important.

Then I thought, “Hang on, I’m leaving my own HoD role after 10 years. I should offer my own collected wisdom to my successor, and to any other poor saps who think the TLR justifies all the extra contact with SLT they’ll need to have.” Not a blog on general “leadership”, because I’ve done that already, and a lovely catharsis it was too. But a blog on being a Head of Department, for those who might be taking on that role for the first time in September. Then I realised that this will be an even easier blog than normal, because I’ve already done it !

Two years ago, the wonderful Jill Berry wrote a piece on the Guardian website about what it means to be a good HoD. I didn’t know Jill then (I’d never been on Twitter at the time), and my response was somewhat sceptical of Jill’s perspective. I thought that she was describing what a headteacher thought made a good HoD, rather than what a teacher or HoD might think was a good HoD. And I launched what, on reflection, might well have been my first mini-blog.

You can find the Guardian article here. For ease of reference, I’m repeating my BTL comment here. I’ve read it again, and I still subscribe to every word I said back then! Sorry, Jill!

number-one-small-blueKey equipment for every Head of Department

What makes a great head of department :

1) Get the admin right. You need to sort out your timetabling, syllabus, resources, exam entries, cover and all the other many bits and bobs without which nothing would actually happen. Unglamorous, boring, essential. No amount of piss and wind about “leadership” and “vision” will get a single kid entered for exams and able to do them.

2) Act as a shit-umbrella for your team. Just because we have a generation of school “leaders” who think that their job is to try to guess what OFSTED might want, and then impose that on all the teachers, irrespective of constraints such as time, resources or reality, doesn’t mean that you, Head of Department, need to stand there saying “I’m simply following orders”. There are ways of making your colleagues’ lives more bearable. Find them, and use them.

3) Be fair. This means making sacrifices. The ONLY reason you shouldn’t be handing out an equal allocation of KS3, KS4 and KS5, or top and bottom sets, to your people, is if you have a really weak or strong teacher best employed in a specific way. This does not mean that you decide your own personal skills are best suited to all the top sets and sixth form classes. Likewise, share the load – it’s not always easy, but don’t have one of your department on 25 lessons a week, and the other on 18.

4) Support your people. If they’re sick, don’t bully them for cover. Just sort it out – it’s not hard. If someone’s having a hard time (we all do), find a way to lighten the load. Take a lesson off them this week. Do that cover they’ve been scheduled for. If you’re feeling really kind, offer to mark some of their students’ coursework. The remarkable thing is, if you do this for them, you’ll find they’re likely to repay that in spades when you need it. It’s a bizarre type of human reaction, apparently, and one which the NCSL and OFSTED are utterly unaware of.


How lots of school “leaders” want teachers to see them

5) Treat your colleagues as colleagues – yes, adults. Don’t talk down to them as if they’re saggy, balding sixth-formers. When you consult them, actually consult them. Not an SLT “consultation”, which involves inviting people to an after school meeting to tell them what they will all now have to do. Also, admitting to your own mistakes, and being interested in their lives is a good touch too. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with agreeing with their complaints about the latest mentalist SLT marking policy. These are highly trained, intelligent professionals in a school. Not privates in Wellington’s army.

6) Accept that just because they don’t teach like you, doesn’t mean they’re bad. There are many ways of skinning a cat, and just because your way works for you with your classes, doesn’t mean it’ll work for them with their classes. When some SLTs talk about the need for “consistency“, what they too often mean is “uniformity“, preferably in the style which they dimly remember employing during the 2 years they spent in the classroom ages ago. Don’t make their mistake.

7) Don’t create unnecessary work. If you undertake no-notice observations, or demand lesson plans for every lesson, then you’re an idiot who mistakes “making teachers’ lives miserable” for “improving outcomes for students”. They’re not the same. Quickly, apply for higher “leadership” positions; they’ll love you on the “Leading from the Middle” course.

8) Recruit the right people. The single most important thing you will do as HoD is to make appointments. Fight harder on this than on anything else. When SLT are trying to force that young, enthusiastic, jargon-spouting, clueless spreadsheet jockey on to you, fight them. Do not recruit anyone who is not good except on a time-limited temporary contract if you’re desperate. For all the blather and guff about “leadership”, the education of the children in your department is dependent upon the quality of the staff put in front of them in the classroom. You owe it to them to fight over this. Don’t mess this up.

9) Don’t be an arse. You know Wilshaw said that he knows he’s doing a good job when people tell him that morale is at an all-time low ? Well that’s not because he’s right. It’s because he’s an oafish, unimaginative, egomaniacal, dickhead. You don’t have to be him. There are plenty who already want to be. Let them, and remember point 2 above.

febq9kVHow lots of school “leaders” are seen by teachers

10) Chocolate. Lots of it. All the time.


4 thoughts on “Being a Head of Department

  1. I would like to say you could be describing me when I was a head of department. But that might seem immodest! Ultimately I was bullied out of the school though for not conforming to SLT requirements, so it can be a dangerous row to hoe! Having said that I’m now happier and better paid and doing more interesting work, so I should be grateful!


  2. I second your philosophy of HoDship. Like Barbara, ultimately I was shoved out; but I don’t give up, and am having another crack in another milieu, dancing to the same tune, better and more experienced this time, I hope.
    There’s so much empty dogma in how obsessed with concepts and principles of leadership from business and general life-guru mumbo-jumbo type theorisers education has become. Your principles have more value than all of that combined.


  3. At last! An approach to leadership that does not batter all those beneath! Many many SLT need to embed this culture shift.


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