The Subject Series, Part 3 – 10 Questions to Check how Good Your School is

10 Questions to Check how Good Your School is:

  1. How good is your English department?
  2. How good is your Maths department?
  3. How good is your Science department?
  4. How good is your History department?
  5. How good is your Geography department?
  6. How good is your MFL department?
  7. How good is your PE department?
  8. How good is your Art department?
  9. How good is your Music department?
  10. How good is your Drama department?

This is the third and final post in a series of blogs which attempts to place subject specialism at the centre of school improvement.  I’ve tried to make the point that it’s easy to over-complicate school improvement, when in essence it means students performing better in the subjects that they study.  Crucially though, subject-led school improvement will only hit the mark if fundamentals such as solid leadership, behaviour, curriculum and assessment are already in place.

In this final post, we’ll consider what subject-led school improvement looks like at a school level, rather than across a trust, by focusing on a few areas of school life that don’t get much attention.

Career progression

We have a structural problem in our profession that to advance in your career usually means moving further away from your classroom and your subject.  Take a successful Head of Department who joins a senior leadership team as Assistant Principal.  Not only are we paying this person more to teach less, but we’re also taking them out of their subject and asking them to focus instead on whole-school concerns.   A Head of Department who previously grappled with the challenge of ensuring that students are exposed to the best that’s been thought and said in their subject might now find themselves signing off risk assessments for school trips.

We therefore encourage colleagues to race to the top, rather than to invest in subject knowledge and the skill of teaching their subject.  To tackle this, we should move towards leaner leadership teams, with successful heads of department remaining with their subject, even if it means paying them as much as we previously paid junior members of the senior team

Line Management

Thousands of school leaders across the country line-manage departments in their school, but how many of these have received training on what good line management looks like?  Here’s one way of doing it:

At the start of the year agree a 1-page plan for the department containing the following:

  • 1-sentence summary of the most pressing priority the department faces: “This department will be more effective in 12 months’ time than the department it is today because … “
  • Brief outline of what success might look like e.g.
    • Higher proportion of top grades
    • More students taking our subject at KS4 and KS5
    • Greater quality and quantity of writing at KS3.
  • How we will achieve the above, broken down into the following areas:
    • Teaching and teacher development e.g. All teachers receive frequent incremental coaching
    • Assessment/data e.g. Balance between low-stakes formative assessment (quizzes etc) and termly standardised tests, with appropriate response to students’ performance on these tests
    • Curriculum and planning e.g. Map-out curriculum to ensure timely delivery, co-planning of each unit
    • Student effort e.g. Ensuring students have the resources to work hard and productively away from the classroom.

This 1-pager drives the agenda for all line management meetings, which should take place every week. I remember line managing HoDs thinking ‘hmm, what shall we talk about this week?’  Get this 1-page plan right and the agenda writes itself each week.


Instead of cross-curricular links and ‘teaching and learning communities’ spanning different departments, let’s provide our teachers with the time and space to work with colleagues in their subject.  Beyond some whole-school CPD on critical areas of classroom practice (e.g. basic principles of assessment, questioning and feedback) time for CPD is probably best spent in departments, with teachers of the same subject agreeing how to bring key language to life in their subject, how to improve the quality and quantity of students’ writing in their subject and how to ensure appropriate challenge in their subject.  Co-planning within subjects – unit-by-unit and lesson by lesson – strikes me as one of the most powerful things that schools can do to build subject specialism.

The role of an academy trust, or anyone else interested in school improvement, is to sort out the fundamental infrastructure in schools (leadership, behaviour, curriculum, assessment) so that subjects can flourish.  It is through subject specialism, not generic improvement plans, that our schools will thrive.

The Subject Series, Part 2 – Pedants for Precision

It’s easy to over-complicate school improvement, when in essence it means students performing better in the subjects that they study. For this, we don’t need generalist school improvement consultants, we need subject specialists with the knowledge, skills and experience to provide specific, tangible support to the departments that they work with.

test tubes

In my role at United Learning I have the privilege of working with 6 subject specialists who lead on school improvement by raising standards in their subject across the 19 southern academies in our group.  They make a difference in a way that a generalist school improvement consultant could only imagine.

Ben is our Science Advisor. On an early-morning train journey to Northampton he gave me an insight into the things he looks for when he goes into schools:

It’s my job to ensure that none of our science teachers are working in isolation.  I spend a lot of time talking about writing.  Good science teaching involves getting students to write about scientific ideas, so when I go into lessons I look at the quality and quantity of students’ writing. I want to see writing that is a product of a student’s thought process. They should be able to write a full paragraph about a given scientific concept. We’ve all heard students say “I understand it but I can’t put into words”. This is precisely why they need to write it down, because it crystallises what’s in their head and identifies any gaps in understanding, however small. I’m reminded of the line, “I write in order to understand”. I want teachers to see that the process of writing is how students develop clarity of thinking.

I also encourage teachers to focus on knowledge.  The best science departments insist that students secure a basic factual understanding, often through regular quizzing of factual knowledge.  I can’t apply my knowledge of convection currents to explain a sea breeze if I don’t know that gasses expand because particles move further apart when they’re heated.  So, I encourage Science teachers to give students the chance to practice thinking logically, to see a logical sequence – “if this is true then that’s true, and if this is true then that must also be true…” so students need plenty of opportunities to apply facts across different contexts. 

Imaginative questioning stems from this. For example, in order to explain why solids cannot be compressed a teacher might follow logical sequence of questions such as:

  • Can particles be compressed? No
  • Are there any spaces between the particles in a solid? No
  • Can the particles be pushed closer together? No
  • Therefore, what would happen if I try to compress a solid?

What is interesting here is that the first three questions are closed and concrete, yet the final question (and the teaching objective) is open and abstract. The final conclusion is a logical extension of those concrete facts. 

Attention to detail is important too.  For example, you might see a teacher giving out 1cm square paper to practice graph drawing when students need to be accurate to 1mm when plotting graphs in controlled assessments or exams.  Students need to be shown this attention to detail too. For example if you draw a diagram of a covalent bond you have overlapping circles for each element, like a Venn diagram, but if students don’t draw the dot and cross (representing the shared electrons) within the overlap of the Venn then they may lose the mark if it is drawn shoddily. It’s important that teachers ensure that students are precise about what they’re doing so that there’s no ambiguity. The best science teachers are relentless pedants for this sort of precision.

This precision relates to language too, if there’s a turn of phrase used by a student that is ‘sort of right’ but not precise enough I’m interested in how teachers pick up on this.  I love it when teachers have very high expectations for students’ verbal responses and reject answers that are nearly there but not quite right.  Take a question on pressure: In terms of pressure, why do polar bears lie flat on the ice?  A student might say ‘because this spreads out the mass’ which is a broadly accurate description of what the polar bear has done, but doesn’t answer the question or pick up the marks.  A better answer is that the bear spreads the force (or weight) acting on the ice over a wider area which lowers the pressure. Here, the answer is improved by relating the variables which contribute to the quantity of pressure. It is not that “spreading out the mass” is wholly wrong, it’s just that it’s not nearly right enough. As teachers it is tempting to forgive these ‘nearly answers’ which do hint that students have a fledgling understanding of a given concept, but also show that they are falling short of being able to articulate it using the best scientific language.

I love the precision in Ben’s analysis.  There’s no way a non-scientist would be able to provide such granular guidance.

With the growth of multi-academy trusts we’re going to see more people working across schools in improvement roles.  There’s a danger that we end up with an army of generalist consultants who know their way around a RAISEonline and an inspection dashboard but have no clue about the specific language required by students to gain full marks in a Physics question on pressure.

The flipside of this danger is the opportunity to allow people to develop their careers while retaining their subject specialism.  Our subject advisors have been successful Heads of Department who want to retain their specialism while having an impact across a range of schools in a range of contexts.  Crucially, they are responsible for outcomes in their subject across our schools, meaning that when they go into our academies they roll their sleeves up, work with students and build capacity of subject teams. They’re also well placed to establish links with exam boards and provide precise guidance on moderation, standards, exam preparation, curriculum design and the writing of assessments.

School improvement means students performing better in their subjects.  The majority of support that schools receive should therefore be provided by subject specialists.

UPDATE: Following some feedback on Twitter (“are these not the same as local authority subject leads?”) I should probably stress that (a) Our subject advisors are responsible for outcomes in their subject across our schools and (b) because we as a MAT can ensure consistency in the basics of school improvement (leadership, curriculum, behaviour, teaching, assessment – see previous blogs) we can enable our subject advisors to have impact. Point (a) means that our subject specialists work directly with students, they do masterclasses with A/A* candidates, they provide guidance on controlled assessments and mock exam grade boundaries.  In short, they are subject specialists with teeth.  Point (b) means that they can be sure of a common curriculum across our schools enabling them to invest in assessments and student resources which support this curriculum.

The Subject Series, Part 1 – Good to Great

Earlier this year I was sat in the feedback meeting at the end of an Ofsted inspection.   The school had retained its Good status.  After receiving the feedback from the lead inspector, the Chair of Governors asked what the school needed to do to get to outstanding.  The response was “get more green on your RAISEonline”*.   The lead inspector wasn’t being flippant, and I appreciated her honesty.  It got me thinking, perhaps an outstanding school is simply a good school with better grades.


Throughout the land, school leaders are grappling with the question of how to become outstanding.  Courses are delivered, meetings are held, papers are written, usually with a catchy heading like  ‘good to great’.  Several common themes emerge from these courses, meetings and papers.  One is that outstanding schools are outward facing, serving their communities and supporting other schools.  Another is that outstanding schools are less prescriptive, captured in the phrase ‘tighten to good, loosen to outstanding’. A third common theme is that middle leadership would tend to be stronger in an outstanding school, with the school’s success less reliant on a hyper-active SLT.

There’s something in all of these points, but there’s also something missing.  Perhaps the best way of moving from solid to excellent is by placing subject specialism at the heart of the school.  It’s easy to over-complicate school improvement, when in essence it means students performing better in the subjects that they study.

Subject specialism as a lever for school improvement starts with the curriculum: a 5-year journey in each subject which gradually exposes students to the key knowledge, skills and understanding of that domain.  This means that that the Y7 curriculum does not seek to replicate the GCSE specification, but does seek to provide a solid grounding in the key knowledge that underpins the whole discipline.  I’m reminded of my visit to Michaela when Jonathan Porter talked us through the Y7 Geography curriculum which gradually constructs an understanding of place through knowledge of continents, capitals, oceans and rivers; few of which will be directly tested in a GCSE paper, but all of which will enable students to appreciate the basic layout of the world around them.  With this big picture in place, students will gradually gain a more granular understanding of Geography in the 5 years ahead of them.

This 5-year journey in each subject requires a coherent timetable, with sufficient time devoted to individual subjects, particularly the subjects that the majority of students will take throughout secondary school.  A humanities carousel, or a curriculum which bundles subjects together in Y7 to ease the transition to secondary school, will struggle to support this 5 year journey.  Specialist teachers are critical to this too.

With these structures in place we can turn our attention to CPD.  Where this is done best, I see the member of SLT who leads on teaching and learning identifying the common features of good teaching that they would expect to see in classrooms.  These might include the skilful delivery of challenging content, modelling of excellent work, astute questioning and precise and frequent feedback.  Once these key features are understood by the staff body they can be devolved to a subject level, with teachers of the same subject deciding together how they will bring these features to life in their classrooms.  Teachers need less generic guidance on the benefits of modelling, and more time to work out how to model excellent work in the units that they are about to teach.  What this modelling looks like, and where in the learning process students encounter a model, might vary significantly depending on the subject.

Co-planning can be powerful here because it nudges teachers to discuss what happens in their classroom, and to consider the best way of delivering each topic, while also building accountability for the quality of lesson planning.  United Learning schools devote the first day of each term to co-planning within departments.  It’s trickier when a school only has one teacher of each subject.  In these cases we build links between subjects at different schools, and encourage teachers to sign up as examiners and engage with the online community for their subject.

On a different encounter with an Ofsted inspector I was recently asked how we develop scholastic excellence in our students.  We do this by placing subject specialism at the centre of our school improvement strategy.  

A school that places subject specialism at the heart of its work would soon see plenty of green on its RAISEonline.


*RAISEonline is a document which compares school performance to national performance, with green signifying better than national achievement in your school