Monday, 22 July 2013

10 thoughts for a head of department

I've just finished my second year as head of department. I think they've been successful - we have scored school record GCSE results in both years, have raised the profile of the department immeasurably and have recently demonstrated the strength of our team with our first ever departmental CPD open day. I had taken on the HoD role with just one year of teaching experience completed in another school before I started (so I've just finished my 3rd year of teaching). While I knew about managing teams from my earlier experiences and trainign in my engineering career, it struck me as odd that there is no real training or standard framework given to all school HoDs when they start. The following list includes some thoughts that might be useful to new HoDs (not trying to blow my own trumpet or looking to teach anyone to suck eggs - you're welcome to ignore or disagree with any aspect of this if you see fit! I just thought these might be useful...). I'm listing these in no particular order...

1) Get to know your team's strengths & weaknesses at an individual level
Particularly important if you are coming into a HoD post at a new school, but it's also worth considering if you're being promoted at the same school - knowing someone while working alongside someone can be very different to knowing them as a line manager.

Vitally don't take anyone else's word for it. When I started in my current position I was given an overview of the department and the SLT view of all of the teachers - I'd say this was accurate for only about 50% of the team, and could have been grossly misleading if I had taken it purely at face value.

Talk to your team about their lessons and their teaching, talk to the students, gather as much information as you can.

If there are people in your team that are more experienced than you then use that to your advantage - ask for their opinion (but remember you can choose to ignore it - you're HoD after all). If there are weaknesses in the team then think about what you can do to mitigate for them and eliminate them over time through CPD.

2) Lead from the front
Effectively "practice what you preach" - never ask your department to do anything that you aren't willing to do yourself. Whether that is to take that difficult bottom set, to implement a marking schedule, or to try a new idea. You can't be judgemental on someone else's practice with any credibility unless you are demonstrating that you are doing the right thing yourself.

I'm sure there will be conflicting views on this but as far as I'm concerned You don't have to be the best teacher in the department to be an effective HoD, but you certainly mustn't be the worst! As a HoD you will teach fewer lessons than the rest of your department - if you're the best then you're actually depriving the students of the best teaching! Just as the best footballers don't necessarily make great managers, the best teachers don't necessarily make great HoDs. Due to your management commitments your teaching will probably suffer a little - just make sure you consistently hold on to good lessons otherwise you'll lose credibility quickly.

3) Get a grip on the departmental finances
Whether your budget is a few hundred pounds or a few thousand - spending it wisely can make a real difference to the department. Plan for expected purchases & bills at the start of the year so you know how much you have available for departmental development (ask your finance function to help you look back at prior year's expenditure to help you make forecasts).

Demonstrating good control will also help you justify requests for additional funding for particular initiatives. A clearly costed proposal against a backdrop of well managed finances is much more credible than scrappy data and lack of control.

I was once told that I should always ask for a bit more than I really want when asking for a budget so that when they give me a bit less than I ask for I'll have the right amount. I personally find that asking for the right amount supported by enough detail to fully justify it means that I've never yet had a budget request reduced.

4) Follow your instincts
So long as you are trying to do the best you can for the students in your care, and for your department then you can't go too far wrong. Try things out, suggest things, invent things. Ask for feedback from your team, from the students, from parents, from SLT. Never be afraid to admit you were wrong and never feel that you must have all of the answers instantly - sometimes you need to think, discuss or try something out before the right path becomes clear.

5) Embrace your conflicting roles in communication.
You're the voice of leadership to the department, and you're the voice of the department to leadership. These may require a different approach and there is nothing wrong with that - it's not being two faced, it's a vital part of doing your job.

You should filter and interpret SLT messages to your department (but not dilute or rubbish them). This should help your team to prioritise and work in line with SLT direction in the way that makes the most sense given the constraints of your department. You know your department better than anyone else (see item 1) - therefore you are best placed to work out how a particular message should be delivered for best effect. (If you do re-prioritise for your team then it's probably a good idea to let your SLT know the order you have placed priorities in - just in case they don't agree). This is a vital part of setting the tone and helping your team to be effective.

Similarly you should filter and interpret your team's attitudes and responses when communicating with SLT. If you know that your team will react badly or have reacted badly to a particular initiative then the most important thing to share is usually the reasoning behind this reaction, not necessarily the reaction itself.

Developing a bit of selective inertia in communication can be useful too. Early objections can quickly mellow to acceptance and knee jerk reactions can be revised - passing on messages or reactions too quickly can unsettle a team or harm management perceptions.

6) Take responsibility for successes and failures
With team leadership and the TLR payment it brings you take on a level of responsibility for the collective performance of the team. If the team does well then you should make sure you celebrate it both within and outside of your team. A successful HoD is only successful because of the team that they work with - lose sight of this and you'll run out of successes quickly.

Failures or poor performance from the team are also your responsibility. Acknowledge them, and learn from them. Always think about whether there was something else you could have done to avoid it - could you have detected it earlier? changed the staffing? changed the exam? asked for help? Don't point fingers at individuals if things go wrong - it's not about blame, it's about putting things in place so the team doesn't find itself in that situation again.

7) Delegate and tasks let them get on with it
If you delegate a task the worst thing you can do is check up on every step - you may as well do it yourself. So long as you know the person you delegate to has the right skills (see point 1) then let them do it - they'll learn far more by doing it themselves than by you shepherding them the whole way. Remember you can delegate upwards as well as downwards, and saying no to people delegating to you can be really important.

8) Establish a clear and regular form of communication
I use a weekly newsletter that I e-mail to the team at the start of each week. Others might use a verbal briefing. The key point is that the department need to know where they can find the key info for a particular week. I include anything relevant to that week and also advance notification of upcoming dates like reporting deadlines or parents evenings. This sheet may take me an hour each week, but it saves loads of separate e-mails and conversations that can easily add up to more than an hour. This same document also includes all departmental meeting agendas and minutes, again simplifying communication as it's all in one place.

9) Know your departmental data inside out
As a bottom line as HoD you should never be surprised by a set of results or a class's performance. Knowing how each group is fairing is a vital part of actively managing the performance of your department rather than being a passive recipient of it. For me as a self confessed Excel geek I find the data crunching side of this no problem, but if you don't have the skills to do this yourself then get some help from someone that can do it, for example your school's data manager.

Never sail hopefully - find a way to measure progress and make it visible to your team.

10) Never be afraid to ask for help
There will be situations you have never come across before, there will be conflicting interests or priorities. Identifying when you need help is a real skill and the sign of a strong leader. Help could be in the form of advice, a particular skill, time, direction, prioritisation, delegation, or simply someone to vent steam at.

I hope that at least some of this is useful, but if not I've still found it useful to write. If you have any thoughts or comments then please let me know... :-)


  1. I enjoyed this, Kev - thanks for sharing your experiences and your thoughts.

    I was a HoD what seems a lifetime ago - in the early 1990s - and at that stage there didn't seem to be ANY preparation/training for the middle leader role (and that wasn't a term we used then. I think HoDs were seen as administrators as much as anything). You learnt the job by doing the job, and we didn't pass on advice to other new/aspiring HoDs either. We've come a long way since then!

    I went on to become a Head in due course, but I finished in 2010, and now I do a number of things, including consultancy, and I'll be doing training with aspiring, new and experienced HoDs next academic year. I'd like to use your blog in that work, if I can. It's great to have stories of serving HoDs to use as examples and to discuss/reflect on. Let me know if you're happy for me to do that?

    Thanks @jillberry102

    1. Thanks for your comments Jill. Interesting that you think things have improved- in many ways I suspect a lot of HoDs would say that they don't get much preparation for the role and end up just muddling through. All seems far too hit and miss for a national system.
      I'm happy for you to use my blog in your work, but please can you give them the web address as part of it?

    2. Thanks for your comments Jill. Interesting that you think things have improved- in many ways I suspect a lot of HoDs would say that they don't get much preparation for the role and end up just muddling through. All seems far too hit and miss for a national system.
      I'm happy for you to use my blog in your work, but please can you give them the web address as part of it?

  2. Thanks, Kev - and yes, I will certainly do that. Also, recommending Twitter and suggesting they follow people like you is something else I'm keen to do (see the beginning of John Smith's blog here!

    I think the National College's NPQML is an interesting development for Middle Leader preparation, building on Leading from the Middle and the Middle Leadership Development Programme. I do believe things HAVE got better, but there's still a long way to go. Strengthening Middle Leadership is crucial both in terms of improving standards of teaching and learning AND preparing the next generation of Senior Leaders and heads.

    Thanks again.

  3. Sounds great - and certainly some form of training is much better than none at all!