Why subject leadership is crucial to the success of your curriculum (podcast)

Simon Hickton

Simon Hickton

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Subject leadership is a critical priority for primary schools under the new inspection framework, but how can leaders ensure that staff are equipped to meet the challenges? Caroline talks to Cornerstones Founder and former Headteacher, Simon Hickton. They discuss what’s involved in subject leadership today and why it’s crucial to the success of your curriculum. Simon also explains his simple three steps – the ABC of subject leadership – that can be actioned by any primary school to ensure good subject coverage and progress throughout a rich, balanced curriculum.

Caroline: Hello everyone, I’m your host Caroline Pudner. Subject leadership is a real priority in primary schools, particularly since the focus has shifted from simply covering the core subjects to a fuller, broader curriculum that values all subjects. I’ve invited Simon Hickton, the founder of Cornerstones Education, who has also been a headteacher and subject leader to talk through some of the main issues around subject leadership and to offer some tips on how to master it in your school, so you’re ready for those subject deep dives. So, hello Simon! Thank you for joining us today for this important topic, could I firstly ask you what you think about Ofsted’s focus on a broader curriculum, one that values all subjects?

Simon: Finally, thank goodness that we are looking at that broad balance curriculum that as an NQT, I went into primary education wanting to teach that breadth across the curriculum, and not just focus on certain subjects which has tended to happen in the last few years. So, for me that is absolutely wonderful. Even better now that Ofsted are talking about a curriculum that enables learners to develop and discover their interests, talents and character. As someone who read and looked into Sir Ken Robinson and talked about children finding their element, finding their passions. You can do that when you give children that broad diet of different subjects within an exciting curriculum.

Caroline: Yeah, definitely. Now it’s broader, of course it has brought the issue of subject leadership, it’s not just coordinating a subject that may happen once or twice a term it’s actually a lot broader. Before that what does the term ‘subject leadership’ mean to you Simon?

Simon: Well I agree totally, gone are the days where you can just be a PE coordinator because you did football or cricket or whatever it was you did at university. I did football and cricket at university and got a bio-chemistry degree in all things. So, I became the PE coordinator and the science coordinator. And that’s just how it was, whereas now subject leadership is much bigger than that; it needs real expertise. It’s about taking a subject forward within your school and within the whole curriculum, and that is going to create an absolute minefield. Because subject leadership, for me, is about knowing the subject progression that is required in your school, it’s about knowing the strengths and areas of development. Not only of the curriculum but also of the teachers, and then, as always, the most important thing, the children. How are they progressing in that subject? You need systems and the ability to analyse it and analyse those subjects right down to that granular pupil level as well.

Caroline: There’s lots of aspects then, involved in that role and maybe we can look at who should be doing that in schools in a minute. But before that, you mentioned that it is a big job, so it’s obviously going to pose a few difficulties for certain primary schools, if not all primary schools will be finding this a challenge. What are the key challenges for them?

Simon: The thing about the roles and responsibilities of especially small schools. Think about how many hats a teacher wears anyway, but now you chuck in subject hats as well, then it is just massive. The workload issues there are huge for small schools but also for large and average-sized schools because it’s primary. We’re not talking about secondary school where you specialise in 1 or maybe 2 subjects, you’re talking about the plethora of subjects that are within the national primary curriculum. And having to have some expertise in all of those, so that is huge workload wise, especially if you’ve not got the systems in place. I remember way back when we were trying to say ‘we can look at PE in two years’ time’, and you can no longer put it on a 2- or 3-year rolling program for now, we’ve got a slight transition period of time. But this breadth and broad, balanced and ambitious curriculum needs to be taught now. Subject pedagogical content knowledge is massive as well. It’s about knowing your subject and knowing about how to get the best out the children, how to best teach these subjects.

Caroline: Yes, I’ve heard a lot from the Ofsted deep dives. They’re not just expecting a teacher in Year 4 to know about Year 4; you have to have a pedagogical understanding of how history is taught in your school, what the children have learned previously, and where it fits in the wider curriculum.

Simon: That’s exactly it. It’s that progression of learning, and where is that going to come from? We all know children might not have grasped something, so what were they taught last year and what do they need to know next year? That is becoming more and more important now. And then you’ve got gaps in your curriculum. Because we know you must teach the full national curriculum with no gaps. Full subject coverage, which we will talk about, But that’s a key aspect of subject leadership. It’s knowing are there any gaps in the whole school curriculum? And then it’s about tracking and monitoring those making sure that what you’re intending to teach is actually being taught, and just fitting everything in is a massive challenge.

Caroline: Those are some of the key challenges we have been hearing about from schools when you talk to headteachers about it. So the question is who should be doing it? Who should be doing primary school subject leadership?

Simon: For me everyone, absolutely everyone should be involved in subject leadership. We know in most primary schools, teachers want to do what is best for the children. And the best for the children is if everyone is involved in subject leadership. This is why systems are even more important now. We have to take the burden of subject leadership off teachers so that they can do the bits only they can do and they can bring their own expertise to develop staff and areas of the curriculum where they believe there may be a weakness, to make sure that teachers and learning across every subject in school is the very best it can be. It’s not something that is just going to be dealt with overnight, it is an ongoing process.

Caroline: I know people who are listening who may be subject leaders who may be responsible for multiple subjects. There could be an issue when people leave school as your subject expertise and leadership goes with you. There’s a gap then.

Simon: But then they leave and that leaves a huge gap and that’s why it’s important to have things in place so you can cope with some members of staff leaving. It’s a centralized

Caroline: So, it’s a centralized overview, which Ofsted talks about a lot. Everyone has a stake in the curriculum and understands the progression of the curriculum. Let’s now have a look at the timetable issue, as we’ve talked about workload and fitting everything in, obviously at primary level you have a lot of subjects to fit in. How would you plan a rich curriculum given the restricted timetable.

Simon: There is not enough time to teach every single subject in silos. Yes, we do believe that some subjects should be taught almost separately and can be taught separately, but this is where thematic cross-curricular work is still imperative to fit everything in. And Ofsted acknowledge this at primary. Subjects do have to be explicit within projects, but as I’ve said its impossible to fit everything in if you’re trying to fit everything in in silos. Research does currently state that where subjects are taught in a topic, and it’s not done well, that can weaken the learning and the teaching. So, what is absolutely key is having the subject driven projects well planned, well thought out, the interconnectedness and that web of pulling everything together to support quality of learning across subjects with a focus on particular subjects at key moments in time for children, that’s where you get quality time in teaching.

Caroline: Yes, because you need an overview of say history which strands of history are coming up and in what order for children they might come up in a cross-curricular project here and there, and its tracking that through the curriculum.

Simon: Yes exactly, and where does that fit in with the larger concepts and the school’s purpose for their curriculum, how does it all interlink and fit, how does the learning in history support the learning in geography and vice-versa. So, it’s key to have this overarching view of the curriculum, this progression model.

Caroline: That’s the body of work that we have been doing, developing the knowledge-rich projects but with an overview of how the subjects discipline progresses through those projects. Okay Simon, I was wondering if you could explore the term ‘full subject coverage’ with me, what constitutes that?

Simon: For me, it’s the taking of the broader programmes of study. I always use the example of art and design, because there are so few programmes of study for art and design that they are very broad, and it’s about ensuring that the elements within those broad programs of study are covered. For example, in art and design it might say drawing, painting and sculpture. But actually, within your curriculum, are you just drawing and painting, doing sculpture work too? That’s got to be reviewed and that’s the role of a subject leader, to be able to trade these things out and make sure that you’re getting full subject coverage and doing all the elements of this.  What does this mean in your school for every year group? Because it may be that is a KS1 program of study, so that’s year 1 and 2. So it’s making sure that, that is there.

Caroline: So, it’s a big job really. You must look back at the national curriculum and narrow down what the elements are. Looking at progress now, how can you ensure children make progress in every subject. Not just English and math’s.

Simon: That’s where I’m in the very fortunate position that over the last few years I’ve been able to talk to many many senior leaders about the problems that they’re facing and how they’re trying to overcome those. And this is where that rigorous skills and knowledge framework comes in. For every subject to have that behind everything that is planned, so it’s very clear, it’s not just the programme of study but it’s a rigorous skills and knowledge framework and then it’s about the systems that a school needs to put in place to monitor what has actually been taught, not just what’s planned to be taught. Because they are two very different things. Many school leaders have come to me and said ‘my concern is that we have done the plans but it’s not happening in the classroom’ so it’s about monitoring actual coverage that is so important. Because then you can see what you have covered and what has been learned by the children, and that’s the progress. Progress is what has been learned. If children have learned what you planned, then that is the progress.

Caroline: Something else I’ve seen people talk about is the financial implications of subject leadership because to lead in each subject is going to have workload implications, but financial ones as well.

Simon: A lot of that, is time out of class. I think what schools don’t realise is how much that actually costs. It certainly costs in time and draining staff if you’re expecting them to do it out of school hours. But then to do it in school hours, is taking it away from the children which is their day-to-day job, which is the most important aspect of being a teacher. Some schools have the advantage that they have non-contact or non-teaching staff. Even that is hard as it is not something you can say ‘I can do this for everybody’ and you can’t take huge teams out. That for me is the biggest cost, the time it does take to do this right.

Caroline: Let’s now look at the solutions, we’ve talked a lot about the issues around subject leadership. Simon, I know you have nailed down subject leadership to 3 main stages. Can you talk us through those 3 stages?

Simon: That’s right, I like to keep things as simple as possible. So, I don’t think it can get much simpler than an ABC model. From what I’ve seen from my discussions with senior leaders around the country and my own thoughts about what’s important and what we are developing here at cornerstones and how it all fits in. The key thing is to start with an analysis. This means what you want to plan to do or what you’ve currently got in place because there are a lot of schools out there that have some fabulous curriculums. So, it’s about asking the hard questions, asking what’s really happening in coverage and attainment, and that’s the analysis part, the A part. Then, from there, we have part B. B for me is ‘Build’. That is when you must look at the gaps and you now have to build that subject up and create the subject to at the very least there is full coverage. We’ve also found that there may be gaps and that might be in the children’s learning, why? What can we build to support that? Do we have to create resources? We’ve talked about being able to create those quality resources that fit within that progression model. Or some schools may need to build that progression framework, that you need. For a particular subject, or it might be the whole curriculum. And then there is the fun bit. Part C is cultivate, and I like that because it is giving things time to embed and grow. And people make changes, but sometimes it’s too much. Take a step back and give subject leaders the time to observe and work with staff and to see where there may be some issues but what have they put in place to address those issues, and is it working? How do they make sure that the learning is going well in school?

Caroline: Or it has future development plans. If you have Ofsted coming in and you have been cultivating, you can talk to them about what you’re planning to do and what’s working. And then enhancing what you’re already doing.

Simon: Exactly, and then what you do is at certain times of the year you flick back to the analyse and answer those questions again and check attainment and coverage. Once that’s been done you either go straight back to cultivate again or you think that you have a gap and there is an issue with learning here or staff development and then you go back to the build and there’s a bigger chunk of work to do before you cultivate.

Caroline: I think that’s really simple, and I hope to the people listening that thinking of it in those 3 stages clarifies it. There is lot to do within each stage, but I don’t know whether you can miss any of those stages out. So what have you been developing Simon? For schools currently who do use curriculum Maestro, how is their subject leadership managed? How does it help them with these tasks.

Simon: In essence, through work with what subject leaders needed we have been able to develop Maestro to provide the systems with all that information. That might be starting with the build, but definitely analyse and build. Based on the build they can put a curriculum together, based on a rigorous skills and knowledge framework. Then they can look at what coverage it gives you, if they have created a curriculum with their own school projects or Cornerstones schools’ projects. Then they can look at detailed coverage and analyse it in more depth and see elements that may be missing.

Caroline: So, is it quick to do then? You click and can see what you have?

Simon: Yes, you can see a report, and then even better when you can look at the analyse part of the process when you’re looking at individual children who may not be getting something within your progression that they should be getting. So, subject leaders and teachers can have meaningful conversations that focus on learning. Not on having to spend hours and hours trying to create things.

Caroline: I’ve heard this quite a few times from people who are using maestro now, Vicky Musson who is a fantastic director of education. I talked to her recently about how she’s using Maestro but also about the subject of leadership. And she has said that she does not have to do subject leadership at all in her school, as she has said it’s all on curriculum Maestro. She has used it to help her see how the children are progressing.

Simon: That’s right, I remember speaking to Vicky nearly a year ago now and she was talking about the issues, and I said that that’s what we’re trying to develop so you’ve got that system in place that does that subject leadership for you and then you can focus on what you need to focus on because it also tells you what has actually been taught. This was a big thing we spoke about as she was concerned what was intended to teach has not been taught. Then you can focus on what has been learned.

Caroline: Yes, you need to know it’s live and impacting your subject learning at your school. Thank you, Simon, for this, I hope this has given the listener some interesting things to think about no matter what phase you’re at in your curriculum and subject leadership within your school. And please do get in touch to see if Maestro can help you in your school. Thank you for listening and thank you to Simon for joining me today.

Simon Hickton, Caroline Pudner, 10th March 2020