Developing Subject Leaders in a Primary School

Laura Burton, Senior Education Lead at SSAT, explores effective subject leadership with Emma Stevens, headteacher at Hauxton Primary School in Cambridgeshire, who shares an insight into how subjects are led across her small village primary school and how she overcomes barriers and challenges.

In a primary school, a subject leadership role gives teachers the opportunity to make an impact beyond their own classroom and develop new skills and expertise; it can offer meaningful development opportunities for primary practitioners and is often the first experience of leadership. There may, however, be challenges and barriers which require school leaders to think creatively and resourcefully to secure the confidence and effectiveness of subject leads.

Located in a village south of Cambridge, Hauxton Primary is a small school with pupils grouped in four mixed age classes. There are five members of the teaching team, including headteacher, Emma Stevens and assistant headteacher, Jayne Snelling. Working as a close team has many benefits. At Hauxton, teachers engage in high levels of professional dialogue regularly but being a small team does mean that all teachers, including the headteacher, are responsible for leading all National Curriculum subjects between them. All teachers lead a core subject or SEND. Additional subjects are shared among the team, resulting in each member of the team leading three or four subjects simultaneously, which can pose challenges.

Managing staff workload, whilst maintaining effective leadership and class teaching, is a key priority for Emma. Although a limited budget and reduced capacity means all subjects are not able to be allocated release time, core subject leaders and the school’s SENDCo are given regular dedicated time out of class for leadership activities. Working collaboratively as a small, tight-knit team is instrumental to the effectiveness of subject leadership across the whole curriculum at Hauxton. The teaching team works together on the development of all subjects, conversations are supportive in identifying strengths and next steps. As all curriculum mapping and monitoring is undertaken jointly during staff meeting time, subject leaders have a better understanding of where their subject is within the whole school, the achievement of pupils across all key stages and allows trends to be identified and explored more easily. Jayne recognised that working in this way often supports the successful introduction of new initiatives in training sessions as the team are familiar in working in a collegiate way and can easily see the rationale behind what is being introduced based on previous working and discussion. Governors are invited to these sessions, which reduce the need for separate subject leader meetings and provides a useful development opportunity for the subject leader to present, discuss and answer questions around their action plans.

In knowing her whole team well, Emma is always exploring ways to harness individual strengths and interests to support the development of subjects across the school. A member of the teaching team remarked that ‘there are more opportunities in small schools to progress in areas of interest’. Within the wider staff team, there is a wealth of expertise at Hauxton which enhance the curriculum in a range of areas, including science, retail, languages, classics, sport mentoring and gardening. Emma uses these skills and interests to enhance the work undertaken by the teaching team and subject leader to develop the subject and experience of the pupils.  Emma recognises that it is not always possible for subjects to be led by individuals who have a specialism in that subject.  She ensures that there is a clear structure for subject leaders: teachers know what is involved; what information they need to gain and how; questions they are likely to be asked.  These skills of leadership can be transferred to different subjects if needed however Emma believes it is important for SLT to be aware of individual levels of confidence and subject knowledge to ensure CPD is targeted in the right place.

High quality, targeted training has been central to effectively developing subject leaders at Hauxton. From her experience, Emma believes that teachers who doubt their ability in the role will often have the necessary skills, they may need some training to help develop their knowledge and confidence to channel the skills more effectively.  When Emma joined Hauxton as head in 2016, she prioritised a part of her CPD budget to invest in staff who had the potential to be future leaders and has also used her School Improvement Partner to work with subject leaders to build confidence and knowledge in data analysis and subject monitoring.  When training subject leaders, using a range of people to provide different perspectives and viewpoints has been helpful at Hauxton. This experience has enabled leaders to develop confidence in working with external visitors and to challenge the thinking of the SLT, adding richness and vigour to the discussions and work across the whole school. More recently, the whole team engaged in SSAT subject leadership training alongside local schools in the cluster. In Emma’s view, the subject leadership training provided by SSAT came at just the right time in her leaders’ development.  After a year to eighteen months of leading a core subject, the team were provided with opportunities reflect on their role with their peers and learn about the different approaches used by their nearest neighbours. The team deepened their understanding of the role, identifying ways to improve their leadership skills by utilising the models discussed during the training. Exploring the benefits of challenge facilitated further discussions amongst the team concerning giving feedback in a small school.

Hauxton is a school which is always looking for ways to develop and learn. The team value the opportunity to work with other schools to enable reflection and discussion which supports development of all aspects of subject leadership and curriculum within the school. Looking ahead to the future, Emma looks forward to further developing the collaboration and cluster working across the local schools as her team firmly believe that working alongside others in this way is very beneficial for small schools.

Hauxton Primary School is a small, friendly school with 16 members of staff and 100 pupils. They believe in being the best they can be, underpinned by the twelve values: respect, encouragement, discipline, confidence, communication, honesty, enjoyment, independence, belonging, creativity, cooperation and challenge.

Former pupil, writer and aspiring novelist Noah Jarvis, provided the following review before he left in 2020. Hauxton Primary School is a small, welcoming and attractive school that will not only produce lifelong learners but will merge fun and learning into one. Our Headteacher is Mrs Stevens. She makes sure we get the right amount of knowledge flowing through our brains and makes sure that we are all kind to each other. Kindness is what makes THIS school special.

Emma qualified as a teacher in 2002.  Prior to training as a primary school teacher she worked in finance and then as a language trainer in Germany.  A lifelong learner, she completed her MEd in Equality and Diversity with the Open University followed by NPQH. Having taken a break from studying, she has just embarked on a PG Cert in Coaching and Mentoring at Leeds Beckett University. A keen runner and reader, she has been lucky enough to lead the team at Hauxton Primary School since April 2016.

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