Ask the Experts

We asked our Subject Specialist Associate Consultants “What does leading a subject in school look like? How can we do this most effectively?”

Here is what they told us;

Lynn Welsh – Secondary Art and Design

“To effectively lead Art and Design in a Secondary school we must be open to change, learn from others, engage in professional dialogue and find ways of working that are right for the learners that we teach.

The landscape of Art and Design teaching has changed considerably over the last five years and it is becoming more difficult in Secondary schools to be spontaneous, change direction according to need or adapt to important world or social events as our curriculum, particularly at Key Stage 3 needs to be Linda consistent, sequential, transparent and accessible to parents and carers.

This is not necessarily a negative, but for some, it does require a change in perception of the subject. Subject leaders can too readily say that whole school initiatives will not work for our subject as we are very different but some creative thinking and willingness to engage with new ways of working can pay dividends, not only for the department and pupils but also for the whole school community.

It can be tempting for subject leaders at times to stick with what they know, the materials, techniques, processes, art movements or even exam boards. Of course, stakes are high and we all want success for our students but it is worth really examining both the grade boundaries and individual offers from exam boards to determine the right one for you and your cohort.”

Helen Ostell – Primary and Secondary Physical Education

“For me, successfully leading a subject in school is about three key things:

  • Firstly, having a clear vision of what you want your provision to look like based on the needs of the pupils in your school;
  • Secondly, being passionate and knowledgeable about your subject;
  • Thirdly, developing a strong team of staff who can turn a vision into reality and engage all pupils in your subject.

To do this effectively, you will be expected develop your skill set, so that in addition to role modelling excellent teaching, you will be able to think strategically, design curriculum and assessment models, lead people and quality assure your provision.

If you get this right in physical education you will make a significant impact on pupils physical, moral, social, mental and cultural development.  You will develop an interest in patterns of physical activity which are essential for healthy development and lay the foundations for active lifestyles. You will prepare pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities, and experiences of later life.”

Kit Rackley – Secondary Geography

“It can be really challenging depending on the size of a department. If it is large then there are lots of cogs to manage, consistency and standardisation. If you’re small then you’ll likely be supporting non-subject specialists. One thing that worked for me was to be very clear about schemes of work and the learning objectives and components that make them up. You can give suggested resources etc, but, allow staff to approach the LOs has they see fit. Let them lead the learning journey that suits their specialism and style, so long as you all end up at the same destination!”

Kirsty Wilcockson – Secondary Music

“In order to effectively lead Music, leaders need to advocate to Senior Leadership teams the benefits of learning music for music’s sake and ensuring that it is given appropriate curriculum teaching time and resources in which to deliver high quality learning experiences. Leaders need to ensure that a Music curriculum encompasses the areas of performing, composing/arranging, improvisation and listening/appraising with equal weighting.”

Helen Snelson – Secondary History

“This is a very short response to introduce you to three key places where you can find out more about this. The first is an excellent blogpost put together to guide new history subject leaders. You can find it here. The second is to introduce a programme developed especially for History Subject Leaders by the Historical Association. It gets booked up early and future courses and more information can be found here. The third is to direct you to the part of the HA website for History Subject Leaders is here.  Here you can find lots of support and resources to help you to do the role effectively.”

Gillian Georgiou – Secondary Religious Education

“Leading a subject in school is as much about seeing yourself as a learner as acting as a mentor to others. For a subject like RE, it is crucial to be outward-looking, engaging with colleagues across other schools and academies, as well as with the vibrant and exciting research conversations that take place between teachers and academics across the country. This subject is in a period of change right now, so keeping in touch with these conversations is crucial to your ability to be an effective leader. The benefits of doing so will ensure that your capacity to construct an effective curriculum and support (and challenge!) colleagues to implement it effectively will grow. Being a leader of RE is also about having the confidence to engage in robust conversations with those outside your subject, particularly if there are challenges to staffing, curriculum provision or resourcing. This is a great opportunity to be an ambassador for the value this subject brings to the young people we teach!”

Kate Percival – Primary Languages

“Effective coordination in MFL starts by disseminating clear subject knowledge (eg: 12 ATs, 4 core skills, 3 pillars of progression) and passion for the subject to colleagues.  All class teachers, whether they are responsible for delivering languages in their class or not, should be familiar with the specific scheme of work the school uses and know where the children are up to in their learning, what has come before and where it is going to next.  As a subject lead, you may wish to deliver key information and regular updates in staff meetings, source upskilling opportunities for non-specialists and you will want to access supportive CPD yourself which may include skill sharing with other MFL coordinators via subject associations and networks such as Primary Languages Network.

A subject coordinator’s file needs to be kept up to date (whether hard copy or electronically saved) and you will need to make sure practical considerations such as dictionaries, stories and resources are audited and available to use.   Subject leads need a handle on children’s progress as well as areas for development and should be prepared to share good practice regarding language learning strategies and key ways to embed a positive language learning ethos in school.  You may be given the opportunity to observe language teaching and conduct some pupil and staff voice questionnaires to ensure any areas for development are included in your action plan. As coordinator, you will be responsible for establishing or maintaining any links with feeder secondary schools so that key data or information regarding attainment and experience is passed on ensuring a continuity in the children’s learning journey from KS2 to KS3.  As your experience develops, you will feel more and more confident to discuss the subject as a whole within your school context and be prepared to answer questions in a deep dive into primary languages.  Overall, you are an ambassador for language learning and raising the profile of languages at your school whether that be promoting incidental language use, coordinating displays, celebrating the heritage languages represented in your school community or featuring languages in whole-school assemblies.”

Catherine Bickersteth – Primary History

“The most effective subject leader in a school will be a champion for their subject. They must be a reliable source of information for teachers. In primary schools, a subject leader may be leading a subject based on varying factors: their academic expertise in the subject; an interest in the subject; or a desire to develop subject leadership experience, but without specific prior expertise or experience in that particular subject. A history leader needs to be an excellent teacher of history.

A subject leader needs commitment to developing their own subject knowledge and an ability to successfully provide guidance to colleagues, updates on wider subject developments and CPD for colleagues.  One way of being able to be confident in leading history is to engage with professional associations such as the Historical Association and the History Teachers Educational Network UK, and to engage with organisations such as the Black Curriculum and the Holocaust Educational Trust. The subject lead must be able to champion history in school and be proactive in promoting history across the school.

Being a subject lead is so much more than being able to recommend particular resources to colleagues. It is essential that a subject lead has a secure understanding of historical skills and is able to think beyond ‘content’. The history lead ought to be confident in delivering subject CPD to staff, communicating to a wide audience of school stakeholders about history and build a high profile for history in the school. History leads need to know how to facilitate community engagement with history and how to engage children and adults in the subject.

History is a fascinating subject, with so much to offer in primary school, and sets the foundations for continued engagement in education. Anyone who is able to take on history as a lead in primary schools has a great opportunity to inspire children.”


Allie Beaumont – Primary Science

“To help in answering these questions it would be extremely beneficial for subject leaders of primary science to take a look at this very easy to read 16 page booklet that the Wellcome trust produced. great-science-subject-leadership-wellcome.pdf  The booklet is designed to support subject leaders to reflect on science in their school and begin planning its improvement. It encourages subject leaders to:

  • Describe what expertise a good science leader needs
  • Recognise what a good science leader does
  • Understand how good science leadership improve science teaching and understands what ofsted are looking for in a good science leader
  • Know where you can go for support.

Once you have reflected on this then you will be in the best position to “implement a whole-school vision for science, and advise and support colleagues on the pedagogy and appropriate resources to achieve it.”

Linda Whitworth – Primary Religious Education

“Good Religious Education teaching requires engagement from all staff and a clear understanding of how RE contributes to and enriches the wider curriculum. Lessons should be inclusive so that every child is considered and engaged in the learning. Teachers of all faiths and none can teach good RE.

Leading RE requires knowledge of recent developments in the subject (e.g. new versions of your agreed syllabus, the Commission on Religious Education’s final report, (2018) and the Ofsted Research Review on Religious Education.))

  1. Make sure you have clarified with everyone which syllabus you are using, all the staff can access it easily, use it to plan and understand its aims and approach to RE. Ask for a slot at a staff meeting to make sure new members of staff are up to date. Map curriculum coverage.
  2. Ensure your school is fulfilling the current legal requirements for RE. This means identifying how much RE is taught, engagement with the relevant syllabus and the quality of learning across the school. The Ofsted Research Review on Religious Education (2021) Section: ‘Developments in RE’ refers to the legal requirements, the current non-statutory guidance and national developments in RE as a basis for quality in RE teaching. This report is very useful as it gathers together ideas from recent literature.
  3. Discuss your RE provision with your head teacher and identify any gaps you can see. Many agreed syllabuses recommend ‘the equivalent of approximately 60 minutes a week on REat key stage 1 and about 75 minutes a week at key stage 2’ (Ofsted, 2021). NATRE has identified that a significant number of primary schools are not providing enough time for RE (equivalent to under 45 minutes a week) although a recent survey (2020) indicates that the situation is improving, in part due to the new Ofsted inspection framewor .
  4. Discuss with your head teacher the right to withdraw pupils from RE lessons and design/ update a policy on how that will operate, if required. Information can be found here.
  5. Most primary teachers are not specialists in Religious Education and can lack confidence in subject knowledge and fear causing offence. This can lead to generically prepared lessons which are seen as ‘safe’. Encourage staff to ensure all lessons are contextualised in the class’s backgrounds, previous knowledge and interests. Encourage teachers to identify questions which they want answers to and use online websites like REOnline to help build up a knowledge base.
  6. Many teachers may have had very little RE in their ITT training and not had any CPD recently. Identify who needs support and when/where it can be provided. Ask about an RE budget and see if there are any opportunities for you to go on courses, or for CPD to be provided at school. There are free online courses available for ITT and ECT primary teachers e.g. You can also access blogs and articles on RE Online for free and follow RE online on Instagram and Twitter.”

Julia Mackintosh – Primary Geography

“An effective leader of primary geography should have good subject knowledge themselves. This should include knowledge of information about the world e.g. the facts of geography such as the locations of countries and the world’s rivers; knowledge of the subject’s key concepts e.g. place, space and scale, and knowledge of how to ‘think geographically’ e.g. how to use enquiry questions to frame geography topics and how to weave together the various strands of the geography programme of study to form a rigorous curriculum. The geography associations The Geographical Association (GA) and Royal Geographical Society (RGS) provide a number of CPD events and online resources to help develop teachers’ subject knowledge. Of particular note are the ‘In the know’ resources and free GeogLive! webinar series provided by the Geographical Association.

Subject leaders should also understand what progression in primary geography looks like. The GA suggest that regardless of pupil age or the curriculum followed, aspects of achievement for geography should include:
1. Contextual world knowledge of locations, places and geographical features

  1. Understanding of the processes and interactions that explain features, patters and changes over time and space
  2. Competence in geographical enquiry and the skills required to observe, collect, analyse, evaluate and communicate geographical information

Having knowledge of how pupils’ understanding, knowledge and skills build throughout the primary phase allows a subject lead to effectively monitor geography teaching within their school and to support colleagues to plan a high-quality geography curriculum. The progression framework document produced by the GA provides a useful starting point for subject leads.

Finally, subject leaders should ensure that through their leadership and enthusiasm for the subject, geography is visible throughout the school. They should promote geography as a ‘living subject’, encouraging staff and pupils to ‘do’ geography and engage with environmental and other topical issues, helping the whole school community to see this as a subject that is relevant to life in 21st century Britain. Organising whole-school events such as Fieldwork Week and ensuring that resources such as world maps, globes and books with a geographical theme are present in all classrooms can help to raise the profile and visibility of geography.”

Matteo Sciberras – Primary Mathematics

“Effective subject leadership cannot be reduced to book looks and planning monitoring. Book looks might be able to tell you how confident a teacher is at following a lesson structure or setting expectations regarding presentation of work, but they cannot tell you much about students’ learning. They can probably tell you something about students’ performance in a lesson, but as we know, performance and learning are not the same thing.

Effective subject leadership must ensure that teachers have the resources (appropriate manipulatives, for example) to teach their lessons, as well as access to regular, sequenced teacher CPD. Subject leaders themselves need to be engaging with subject associations and institutions such as the NCETM to ensure their own pedagogical content knowledge and subject knowledge is continuously improving. Subject leaders should be aware of which colleagues require more support and be proactive in putting that support into action (e.g., co-planning, team-teaching, guided observations, coaching).

We know that maths is a subject that many children and adults (including teachers) have a level of anxiety about. As such, maths subject leaders need to be an even stronger champion for their subject! Make sure all stakeholders, including parents, can see the joy in maths as a subject in itself.”

If you have any questions you would like to ask our experts, then please contact us.

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