Subject Leadership In Primary Schools: A 10-Point Plan For New Subject Leaders

You’ve just been appointed as a core subject leader in your primary school. Congratulations! Perhaps subject leadership is something you’ve been considering for several years, one that feels like a natural fit given your love of the subject and your qualifications.

Or perhaps, you’ve somehow fallen into the role, the last senior teacher standing after the previous incumbent left. Either way, the subject leadership job’s yours, and it may well be a daunting prospect.

Here’s my 10 point plan to get you started.

1. Understand What The Subject Leadership Role Entails

If you take nothing else from this blog-post, remember this: your role is to improve the learning of the subject at your school. 

That’s it. 

Everything else you do as subject leader should be evaluated by the extent to which it contributes to this aim.

“Isn’t that obvious?” I hear you ask. 

Perhaps it is, but you will be surprised how quickly your effort can be directed towards activities that do next to nothing to achieve this goal, and how often school leaders are unwittingly complicit in this misdirection. 

More on this later…

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New Maths Leaders Toolkit

Adaptable tools, templates and action plans to guide you step by step to success in your new role.

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2. Get Clarity On How The Subject Is Currently Taught in Your Primary School 

Meet with the previous subject leader and ask them what their most recent priorities have been and why. 

Ask them what they think has been achieved over the last year and what obstacles remain. Then, do the same thing with the headteacher. 

The answers you get may vary a great deal in their depth and precision, from “Key Stage 2 results are disappointing” to “Year 5 struggle to use pictorial methods to teach fractions”. 

Take it all on board. 

You might find that across the school the subject is looking healthy and your next move is to help teachers to consolidate this progress.

Equally, you might find that significant and immediate changes are needed.

Next, have a brief conversation with every teacher and subject coordinator in the school. Free-to-use online surveys can be a time-saver, but nothing beats a quick chat with every member of the teaching staff. 

Give them the chance to air their views, and ask them questions like these:

  • “Are you confident teaching the subject?”
  • “What difficulties come up repeatedly in your day-to-day teaching?”
  • “Which groups of pupils do you find most difficult to reach?”
  • “Is the method of feedback used at this school efficient, or is there a way that you think the same effect could be achieved in less time?”

Arrange some release time to drop in to subject lessons across the school, making clear beforehand to all members of staff that this isn’t an observation, as such, but merely a way to get a taste of how the subject is being taught. 

Speak to a wide range of pupils; make a note of everything you find in your subject leadership lesson visits, and take your impressions to your line manager so that you both start off with an honest assessment of the current situation, but keep in mind how limited this initial impression unavoidably is.

3. Think About Mental Fluency In Your Subject 

Having discussed fluency with the other teachers – and with pupils – you should have a decent idea of whether the vast majority of pupils are generally up to speed in this area. (e.g. for mathematices, it’s rapid recall of number bonds inside 20 by the end of year 2; rapid recall of multiplication and related division facts by the end of year 4; etc.) 

In terms of expectations, the national curriculum should be helpful here; 

If the subject you’re leading is maths, this blog for primary school teachers on mathematics fluency for each year group may also prove useful.

It is worth noting that many of the areas of mental mathematics that require fluency are those that are nigh-on impossible to teach over the course of a few lessons. They are often relatively simple in conceptual terms, proving few new insights to children about the structure of mathematics, but they require a great deal of practice to facilitate fluency. 

This being the case, a ‘little-and-often’ quizzing approach can be time-efficient way to achieve this. How you implement this in your school – keeping challenge high and stakes low while ensuring that no children slip through the net – is up to you and your teachers.

Read more: Fluency in maths and how the best schools develop it

4. Review Subject Knowledge And Didactics 

Having ascertained the teachers’ views on their subject knowledge, your priority as an effective subject leader should be to begin thinking about the staff training you can put in place to develop this further. 

For example as a maths lead, the key components of this to be considered are:

Multiple Representations

How confident are the teachers in using multiple representations to develop children’s understanding of new concepts by linking them to the mathematics that the children already know? (e.g. if teaching place value of two-digit numbers, can teachers use dienes, place value counters, number-lines, and place value cards to show this concept from different ‘perspectives’?) 

In addition, do you have the physical resources to support this? If not, is there room in your subject leadership school budget to buy key resources – perhaps just one kind each year, starting with dienes? What training will be required to get the teachers in your school using these with confidence?

Read more: Concrete Pictorial Abstract Approach in Maths

Greater Depth

Are the teachers confident in stretching children across the mathematics curriculum without prematurely introducing them to content from later years? It can be tempting to have some children churning through countless questions while they wait for the rest of the class to catch up. 

Try to help teachers avoid this, encouraging them to extend a given concept for those demonstrating higher ability with a given concept [i]. (e.g. if a child appears to have understood square numbers, they can be challenged to spot the pattern in increasing square numbers, showing through use of physical resources and pictures why this pattern occurs.)

Read more: What Does Greater Depth Look Like In KS2 Maths?

Thinking Mathematically

Are the children being encouraged to think like mathematicians? 

This may sound a little woolly, but it is a critical component of mathematics teaching. Children should be taught how to specialise (choose particular examples to solve a problem), generalise (move from particular examples to a rule), speculate (take sensible guesses about what may be true) and reflect (think about the accuracy of a speculation and what they have learned from the process.)

Other subjects will have different aspects to consider when it comes to training.

Read more:

5. Go Deep Into Assessment And Retention Of Knowledge

There are a few questions subject leaders need to consider regarding assessment and retention:

  • Are teachers systematically assessing children’s prior understanding before teaching a new concept to ensure that they are starting from where the children are actually at, rather than where they should be?
  • Are teachers systematically checking during each learning episode that all pupils have understood a given step before moving on to the next?
  • Are teachers systematically giving children the opportunity to retrieve the learning after a concept has been understood and helping them to embed it in the rest of their schemata?

You’ll notice the word ‘systematically’ used in each of these questions. This is not to imply that you need to implement a school-wide system for ensuring that these things are happening. 

What is more important is that the teachers in your school understand the importance of all three and have their own system for ensuring that they happen. If this means, in some cases, that you make suggestions on how they might achieve this by sharing good practice from other teachers in your school, then so be it.

This is a very important part of effective subject leadership.

Read more: How To Use Diagnostic Assessment To Inform Your Teaching

6. Build Upwards From The Children Who Struggle

Arguably the most important part of your subject leader role in improving the learning of mathematics across your school will be to ensure that – when children struggle – they can keep up with their peers, with very few exceptions. 

This may involve undertaking the detailed, ambitious preparation required for your school to teach with a mastery approach[ii]; it may involve teachers focusing on guided groups with particular pupils; it may involve responsive daily interventions.

Whichever way your school decides to tackle this fundamental challenge, you must monitor its success and be willing to adapt your approach to the circumstances you inhabit and the results that follow.

Read more: Differentiation In The Classroom: The 8 Strategies That Will Support Every Pupil To Reach A Good Standard

7. Prioritise And Understand Opportunity Cost

By now you might be looking at all of the above and feeling a little overwhelmed.

Don’t panic. 

Trying to improve everything at once will fail.

Pick an area of greatest need, discuss its importance with your head teacher and then this can become the basis for your subject leadership action plan. Everything else can build on this one initial step. 

An effective subject leadership action plan is not  a document for the sake of accountability. It is there to keep you focused on your chosen priority.

Where necessary, lead staff training and then, crucially, return to the messages from this repeatedly with teachers, discussing their successes and challenges, allowing them to experiment with the ideas that you have shared. One-off staff training sessions are very unlikely to have an impact. 

The best CPD takes time and is an iterative process that focuses on a single priority.

Teachers’ time is limited. Everything that you ask them to do will come at the cost of another area of their practice or at the cost of time spent living their life outside teaching. 

As a subject leader, and someone who will inevitably determine how teachers use some of their precious time, it is your duty to understand the economic concept of ‘opportunity cost’. 

Put simply, opportunity cost is defined as the loss of other alternatives when an option is chosen. The question isn’t whether something works; almost everything does to some extent. The question is really whether something works more effectively, relative to the time and effort invested, than the other options forgone. 

For example, if as the subject leader you ask the teachers in your school to spend an average of five minutes a day pointlessly tracking which pupils have met all of the curriculum objectives – something usually done because it presents a façade of rigorous assessment to visitors – then that is your choice; it is your duty, however, to also recognise that the time spent on this equates to sixteen hours per year that could have been spent on planning, discussing practice, reading or any other number of beneficial activities. 

Equally, asking for just two hours per week of individualized marking in mathematics books equates to 78 hours per year – roughly two solid weeks of full time work per teacher. 

You might reasonably decide that such marking is a perfectly valuable use of that time. My point is that you must always consider what else could have been done with that time and whether the alternative might have had a more positive impact on the learning of mathematics in your school and the well-being of your colleagues.

Read more: Why I banned marking by Clare Sealy

Download Free Resources

New Maths Leaders Toolkit

Adaptable tools, templates and action plans to guide you step by step to success in your new role.

Download Free Now!

8. Try To Make Minimal Changes Only To Your Existing Curriculum

It is likely that your school’s curriculum is already sensibly ordered, allowing – in theory at least – children’s learning to build as they progress. 

Resist the temptation to meddle unnecessarily; curriculum design is exceptionally complicated. 

Nevertheless, keep the following questions in mind:

  • Are there any obvious weaknesses in the current order in which concepts are taught?
  • Are some concepts taught in quick succession in a way that leads to them becoming conflated in children’s minds? (The confusion around factors and multiples is a common example of this.)
  • Are there opportunities within the curriculum for children to retrieve and use that which has been learned before, ideally in mathematically rich tasks involving ‘mathematical thinking’ discussed earlier?

9. Understand The Purpose Of Data in Your Subject

It can be useful to collect and analyse data to identify which children are falling behind and need concerted support. 

Beyond that, as a subject leader I simply wouldn’t bother. 

Data collection in schools falls into two distinct categories with no middle ground: that which is unambiguously and immediately useful, and that which is a shameful waste of everyone’s time. 

In too many schools, complex data is still collected and analysed with no useful purpose in mind beyond providing a superficially impressive answer to an Ofsted inspector.

Read this: The Myth of Expected Progress in Primary Schools

10. Read And Interact With Other Primary Subject Leaders

Regardless of your level of expertise, reading about the pedagogy and didactics of mathematics is essential, particularly in the areas of the curriculum in which you are less experienced. 

Try to read widely, and seek out books that have opposing views on the teaching of your subject. This will help you to evaluate and question your own understanding of the subject. 

Consider using social media to interact with other educators. It can be intimidating, but thankfully the people you will want to talk to are – or have been – teachers; as such, you will find most of them to be generous with their time and patient with those who ask questions with an open mind.

What follows are my own recommendations as a primary maths specialist.

Teaching for mastery  – Mark McCourt

Even if your school doesn’t adopt a mastery approach to teaching mathematics, you should learn about what it entails and what it implies about alternative approaches.

Read also: What Is Maths Mastery? 10 Answers To A Big Question Inspired By The Book Teaching For Mastery

Visible Maths – Peter Mattock

The use of physical resources and pictures to show mathematical concepts from different perspectives is an essential part of effective mathematics teaching and is grounded in research. Full of practical advice for all levels of expertise, Visible Maths is a thorough introduction into this area of mathematics teaching.

How I Wish I’d Taught Maths – Craig Barton and Transforming Primary Maths – Mike Askew

How I Wish I’d Taught Maths  persuasively links findings from cognitive science with the art of explaining and practising mathematics and provides a highly structured approach to the teaching of mathematics. 

In stark contrast, Askew seeks to ground mathematics teaching entirely in its social context and advocates a view of teaching that while inescapably messy, but rich in exploration and shared dialogue. As such, Transforming Primary Maths makes an excellent and challenging accompaniment to How I Wish I’d Taught Maths, with each book revealing the potential weaknesses of the other approach. 

Reading these two books in quick succession will help you to identify your own views on effective maths teaching.

Third Space Learning series of How I Wish I’d Taught [Primary] Maths blogs put findings into a primary context. Here are some of our blogs to get you started:

Understanding Mathematics for Young Children – Derek Haylock and Anne Cockburn

Teaching and Learning Early Number – Various, edited by Ian Thompson

Understanding Mathematics and Teaching and Learning Early Number unlock many of the mysteries of how mathematical understanding develops in foundation stage and key stage one. Even if you have considerable experience of teaching this age range, these books provide essential insight.

Thinking Mathematically – John Mason with Leone Burton and Kaye Stacey

This is the only book on the list that will explicitly show you what it means to be a mathematician and to think like one. While it isn’t directly about the teaching of mathematics, it is impossible to not come away with a new understanding of the subject and how teachers should approach it.

Mr Barton Maths Podcast

Craig Barton’s entertaining podcast features guests who teach at primary and secondary level. The back catalogue of episodes is extensive enough that you will be able to find something relevant to your school’s priorities. If in doubt, the episode with Anne Watson and John Mason provides an excellent jumping off point.

The Emaths Blog

Mark McCourt’s Emaths blog discusses issues relating to the teaching of mathematics and beyond. It is typically sharp, thought-provoking and based on a rare breadth of knowledge.

Effective Subject Leadership In Primary Schools Takes Time And Effort

In short, remember that you are in a privileged position. Understand your role, your school, its priorities and what you still need to learn, and you will be well on your way to having the impact you desire.

I wish you the best of luck.

[i] The term ‘ability’ has become misunderstood in education. Partly due to its problematic use in predetermining the level of differentiation that groups of children would receive, many see it as denoting some underlying global ability of a child. This is a shame. It’s previous definition – relating to the learning rate of a given concept in a given moment – remains useful. It would be wonderful if the profession could reclaim this eminently useful word.

[ii] See Teaching for Mastery recommended above.

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