From the engine room to the bridge: Should HoDs be steering the ship?

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Heads of Department (HoDs) or subject leaders are often described as the engine room of a school. They do the heavy lifting (it’s a curious coincidence that the word ‘hod’ in a more everyday sense is something used to carry big piles of bricks!) and keep the school running. They often act as a buffer between the teachers in their teams and senior leadership, dealing with pressures and demands from both directions. Sometimes the job feels far more like management than leadership, and to exert a more meaningful influence on the direction of travel of a school, it may require stepping up to a more senior role. Should it be that way? In this post I want to consider whether HoDs should really be the ones steering the ship.  My thinking here was initially prompted by a tweet and then this excellent post from Dawn Cox (@missdcox). The basic premise is simple – the role of teaching & learning / CPD lead should really be devolved to middle leaders like HoDs. But you should really go and read this in full before carrying on here – see you in ten minutes.

As Dawn explains, in many ‘top-down’ models of CPD there is a teaching and learning lead, often a member of SLT, who has whole-school responsibility for CPD. Although this person should engage with all staff, they are the person who drives teacher improvement in school. They will have the time to invest in teacher development programmes in whatever form that takes – CPD sessions, book clubs, breakfast clubs, teachmeets, coaching etc. The problem here, Dawn argues, is that they are not experts in any subject other than their own, and this is where the problems start as generic models of CPD are applied heavy-handedly across a whole school, regardless of whether the CPD on offer is actually relevant to, or required, by every subject or department. To solve this, middle leaders – Heads of Department in most cases – should be teaching and learning leads in their own subject areas, obviating the need for a standalone T&L lead. This is a strong argument, and, self-preservation aside, there is much I agree with and think that this could be an incredibly powerful model for schools to adopt. There are some quite major logistical challenges that would need to be overcome, timetabling probably being the most significant. However, in this post I want to consider a different barrier that would need to be addressed, which perhaps gets partly at the core of why many schools haven’t naturally evolved to this model, and why this model might be difficult to implement (this isn’t to say we shouldn’t try!). I also want to consider how we might start to tackle some of those issues raised, so that this is an achievable model.

Being a good teacher requires expert knowledge across two different domains, specifically:

  • Subject-specific knowledge, including both the substantive and disciplinary elements of the subject
  • Pedagogical knowledge, including a strong mental model of how children learn and how to facilitate this

A lot has been written elsewhere about why subject experts don’t necessarily make great teachers if they aren’t also able to view things from the perspective of novices, and unpack their own mental models (schemas) to make them accessible to learners. Therefore a lot of CPD is focused on improving teachers’ understanding of how students learn and ways to effectively facilitate this using, for example, principles of cognitive science such as retrieval practice, the testing effect etc. What about the knowledge required to be able to help teachers themselves learn? I’d suggest that a third subset of domain specific knowledge is necessary, knowledge of how teachers develop as practitioners. 

Therefore, those that are best placed to deliver improvement in teaching are those placed at position D, the intersection of all three knowledge domains. Now it gets interesting, as we consider where different people within school may fit within this framework, and their suitability for leading teacher development. As already noted, many teachers may be subject experts but don’t have really strong pedagogical knowledge of how best to help their students learn. If they did we wouldn’t need CPD! They are unlikely to simply discover this for themselves, at least not in a particularly efficient manner, (and certainly not early in their career as they build the relevant experience and knowledge) and so CPD serves to plug that gap. Subject leaders we should hope or expect to occupy position A –  they have strong subject knowledge and a good understanding of pedagogy, although this may not necessarily be the case and is discussed in further detail below. It’s unlikely there will be anyone occupying position C as knowledge of teacher development is highly dependent on pedagogical knowledge (and some may argue simply represents a subcategory of this). Teaching and learning leads, we hope, should be really strong on two fronts – pedagogy and teacher improvement – they occupy position B. They will have a deep understanding of learning processes, and should have time to keep abreast of developments in research, keeping their knowledge up to date. They should be investing time and energy into translating theory into practice, and identifying the best-bets from the available evidence. So thus far, no one occupies the ‘sweet spot’ – position D.

Good CPD programmes, co-ordinated by T&L leads, can make room for subject-specificity, but there is a limit to how far they can do this. Improving pedagogy in a relatively generic sense can have a huge impact on teacher practice, but again it may only take teachers so far. For example, let’s say I run a session on building conceptual knowledge by using lots of examples and non-examples to help students develop strong schemas of new concepts. I can explain the importance of doing this, the underpinning theory, and liaise with colleagues to provide examples from different subject areas to illustrate what this might look like in practice. One point I would make is that teachers need to think carefully about the order of their examples, to ensure that they are interleaved with non-examples or examples across different contexts and carefully sequenced to build in complexity and challenge. All good advice, I hope, but what I can’t do, for the Maths teacher in front of me, is dissect a specific set of content knowledge that they need to teach, and model how to sequence that as I’m describing. Without the input from a subject specialist, the teacher may leave my session with a fairly good understanding of what it is they are supposed to do, but without a clear mental model of what that actually looks like for their subject. Or take another example, questioning. I might conduct a lesson drop-in, observing a colleague teach for a portion of a lesson, and then meet to give feedback. I can talk through and model a range of generic strategies, rooted in the lesson I saw, that will hopefully improve the way that teacher uses questioning. I can draw on resources like Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion and Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s Get Better Faster to offer strategies like cold-calling, no-opt out and all the way right to name but a few; brilliant techniques that will definitely improve things like participation and thinking ratio but I can’t offer more substantive feedback on the nature of the questions themselves. Watching a History teacher question their students on the political landscape of the Cold War, I will struggle to differentiate what are legitimate or challenging questions because my own knowledge of the topic is incredibly limited.

With enough time and experience, I can probably improve my subject knowledge in enough areas to start to make a little bit of headway, but I’ll never get even close to approaching the level of genuine subject experts, and clearly it would not be practical for me to try to learn enough to be an expert across so many different domains (though with enough time and money, it’d be an interesting experiment to try).

So where does that leave us and the teachers we are supporting? We need someone with all three elements of knowledge, someone at the intersection of the venn diagram, position D. If it’s not practical for our T&L leads to develop subject expertise in all areas, then the most obvious solution is to turn to the subject leader or Head of Department (I’m going to use the term HoD from hereon). I want to consider now why I think many HoDs may not be secure across all three domains, and therefore are not yet at that intersecting position, and what might need to happen to get them there. It’s important to note here that there are, of course, some HoDs who absolutely are in that position, and are leading their teams in just the way Dawn Cox outlines. This is brilliant, but I suspect it remains a minority phenomenon (this is certainly my experience working with a wide range of HoDs across different schools).

HoDs will surely have the subject knowledge and hopefully good habits to ensure subject knowledge remains strong. Membership of professional associations, wider reading, attending subject conferences etc are likely to be fairly established parts of their practice. Presumably, they have reached their position because they have also demonstrated strong pedagogical knowledge – they have shown themselves to be good teachers from whom students successfully learn. However, it’s certainly possible that this knowledge is implicit rather than explicit. They may get great results but not have a clear understanding of precisely what it is that they do that works. There may be ingredients of their teaching that are highly effective, and others less so, and they may be unaware of this or be unable to differentiate between them. This makes it much more difficult for them to support other colleagues in their department, because they don’t necessarily have a strong mental model of what good teaching looks like (other than “what I do”) which means they can’t make it explicit for their colleagues. If this knowledge is incomplete then it seems unlikely that they will also have adequate knowledge in the final domain, teacher development. Even if their pedagogical knowledge is really strong, they may lack the knowledge of how best to ensure that gets transmitted and embedded effectively in their teams. 


What does it mean to be a HoD? When I stepped down as HoD I met with the person replacing me, who had never previously held a leadership position, to discuss handover. In an attempt to be helpful, I had written down a list of all the things I did as part of my role, in particular to highlight some of those tasks which may not be immediately obvious if you’ve never done the job before. The list got quite long, and it surprised even me just how much I had to do. A few recent discussions on Twitter have highlighted this further and some have questioned whether taking on the job is a poisoned chalice (see this Twitter thread, prompted by Adam Boxer, for a flavour of that discussion). Not all Heads of Department have the same motivation. I’ve known colleagues who’ve ended up as HoD for any of the following reasons (or several in combination):

  • They want more money
  • They want more job security (eg moving from part-time to full-time position)
  • They want a new challenge
  • They want a first leadership role
  • They want more control / autonomy over how their subject is delivered
  • They want something that is a stepping stone to more senior roles, possibly SLT
  • They want to move schools, but only find roles involving department/subject leadership
  • The existing HoD leaves and they are asked to step up
  • They are essentially being ‘rewarded’ for loyalty/length of service

I’m sure there are others, and I’m not going to argue any of these is not a legitimate reason to become a HoD (although I would have serious reservations about someone with a couple of them in isolation). But it means that people arrive in the role with very different levels of knowledge and experience, and varying expectations about what the role means to them. Given the incredibly broad range of tasks a HoD is required to do, many of them not directly relevant to actual teaching, it is unsurprising that many may come into this role without a clear model for how to improve their teams. This isn’t to say that they aren’t well meaning or incredibly supportive (although sadly there are some for whom this isn’t true either), but that they simply aren’t equipped with the appropriate knowledge to be able to help others develop in a meaningful and sustainable way. A good example is the way in which we give feedback to other teachers. The traditional model of lesson observations entailed a complete narrative of the lesson with strengths, areas for improvement and a grade. While many (hopefully most?) schools now recognise that the grades are both utterly meaningless and downright unhelpful, the other elements of observation feedback often remain. While it may seem that an in-depth conversation about the nuances of a lesson may be beneficial, with the HoD imparting their knowledge and experience, it may be very unlikely that this leads to any meaningful change (see Tom Sherrington’s excellent post on this here).

So how do we get them there? If the HoD is the best person to facilitate teacher development because of their subject expertise, we need some significant cultural and structural changes to ensure that they also have, or develop, sufficient expertise in the other two domains.

First, recruitment processes need serious consideration. Asking purposeful and probing questions of potential HoD candidates around pedagogy and teacher development to assess their suitability. If a teacher cites their ‘proven track record of results’ in their application then that needs interrogating. What do they do that gets such good results? To what extent is that evidence-informed and grounded in established pedagogical theory? If their results are good, does that mean their current or former colleagues achieve the same? How do they share best practice, and allow their teams to flourish collectively? It’s worth considering to what extent the person(s) conducting the interview are well-versed enough in current research and evidence to have those conversations. Are teaching and learning leads involved in the process? (in my experience, no!) 

Second, induction and training. Starting in a new role in a new school can be a terrifying affair. There are so many new procedures and systems to learn, new colleagues and pupils, new locations and routines, that the business of leading a subject can be pretty well sidelined for some time. You may have joined a department that teaches a different exam specification which entails learning or, at least, revisiting content you’ve not taught for some time. There’s a fine balance between telling new staff what they need to know to be able to do the job, and overloading with so much information at the start of term that they inevitably need telling or showing it all again pretty soon. My experience is that induction processes tend to be fairly homogenous – whether you are an NQT (sorry, ECT!) fresh from your PGCE or a seasoned teacher – you get the same programme in the same order. Sometimes you find yourself needing to be able to do something in week three that isn’t covered until week seven, by which time you’ve figured it out from someone else, rendering the official session somewhat pointless. Trying to provide something more differentiated would be ideal, although logistically challenging. But if new HoDs, specifically, are to be able to hit the ground running and actually lead their teams, then they probably need an induction process that is tailored better towards this. Even if teachers are remaining in the same school there is a danger in assuming that they don’t need induction because they’re already an established member of staff. But taking on a leadership role represents a huge shift in mindset and practice that will unlikely happen by accident without some decent training. A common experience is that becoming HoD is often a result of demonstrating one set of skills (strong teaching) and all of a sudden now being expected to be an expert in an entirely different domain (leading and managing a team). 

Third, timetabling. HoDs get a reduction in teaching to cover their additional responsibilities; in my experience it typically represents something equivalent to an additional couple of hours per week which is ridiculous given the huge amount of additional work that being a HoD can entail. For HoDs to be fully involved in leading the development of their teams they will need time; time to observe colleagues, give feedback, arrange coaching sessions with time for modelling and deliberate practice, conduct research, prepare resources and training sessions. Timetabling would need to start with the basic premise that every department should have protected time on a regular basis in which to meet. Ideally this should be as part of the school day, not expected to be arranged before school, during lunch or after lessons have finished; there are always legitimate reasons why some people cannot do this (childcare, for example) but, more importantly, this demonstrates to staff that this matters. This should be labelled as subject or department CPD, rather than ‘meeting’ in order to emphasise the purpose of that time (I’ve written more on the thorny issue of meetings here

When I moved roles and stepped down as HoD, I did so with excitement for my new responsibility, but also some measure of relief that I was moving away from what had started to feel a bit like a treadmill. There were parts of being a HoD I loved, but far too much that went with the job that I didn’t enjoy; I’m sure that’s not an uncommon feeling. If schools really want to invest in their teachers, then investing time and training to allow middle leaders like HoDs to actually lead on teaching and learning would be a massive step forward. I wouldn’t mind at all that my T&L lead position was no longer necessary, because I’d have an alternative pathway that was just as exciting. I’d get to move from the engine room to the bridge.

2 thoughts on “From the engine room to the bridge: Should HoDs be steering the ship?

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