Challenging the status quo – hierarchy

After watching the presentation from Mary Myatt and John Thomsett at ResearchEd this year it got me thinking about hierarchy, especially in primary schools. Their talk was about their new book ‘Huh’, conversations with subject leaders from a secondary perspective.

One of the things that came through in every one of the conversations in the book was the passion and love for their subject that the subject leaders had. In secondary schools, a subject leader is a subject expert, often having studied the subject to an incredibly high level. In primary, however, this is not always the case and very often not possible. This is a problem that seems to have been around forever with primary schools and one that has perhaps been more evident since the new framework and increased focus on the curriculum. Whilst we could argue that there are elements where it appears to be a framework geared more towards secondary than primary, the challenge of primary subject leadership runs deeper in my opinion.

So what is the problem and what could we do about it? In primary, there are so many hierarchies, whether they be perceived or real. Two of these hierarchies are incredibly damaging to primary schools and particularly primary subject leadership and I want to look at each in turn and suggest some potential solutions.

The hierarchy of subjects

In primary schools, there is definitely a perceived hierarchy of subjects when we consider their importance. If you don’t believe me, test it out. Ask a primary colleague to name the subjects they teach (without checking them). If I were a betting man, I would predict the order be somewhere close to this:

  • English
  • Maths
  • Science
  • History
  • Geography
  • PE
  • Art
  • DT
  • PSHE
  • Music
  • Computing
  • RE
  • MFL

Now there might be some variation, but I think it goes without saying that core subjects will always come first. Science will usually follow as some will see it as a core subject, but even if not, there are more units to cover than some other subjects. Humanities tend to follow, and then the arts and so on. I appreciate that this has no study behind it to support my claim, but I would be surprised if it were much different. Why is this and what are the implications?

As soon as you create a list like the one above, you are subconsciously making one subject more important than another. Therefore, when it comes down to it, there will be decisions made that fit this hierarchy. In many cases, the budget allocations may follow a similar trend to the subjects, with those at the top of the list receiving more than those at the bottom. There may also be a tendency to focus on those subjects at the top of the list than those at the bottom. More time and more money given to one subject over another creates an example of The Matthew Effect. Therefore, subjects like science or history (at the top of my list) are reinforced and grow as part of curriculum development whereas subjects nearer the bottom are left to potentially stay still – and therefore, potentially go backwards.

As a subject leader in primary, you need to face these battles. The perception of other teachers about your subject will undoubtedly throw up challenges. If a subject nearer the bottom of the list is one that may get a little squeezed in the timetable, how can you support leading it forward, especially as your colleagues are all likely to be subject leaders too and so may lead a subject higher up the perceived hierarchy. It’s not that they don’t value it, but the pressure to cover everything and move everything on has the potential for casualties.

The hierarchy of leadership

In primary schools, certainly in my experience, there is a hierarchy of leadership. There seems to be a largely generic route mapped out if you want to progress to senior leadership in primary schools. I’m not saying that this is the case in all circumstances, but just my observations.

When you start in a school as an NQT/ECT, depending on the size, you might get a year where you don’t lead a subject at primary. After that, you are likely to be given a subject to lead (or more if you are in a smaller primary school). This subject may be a subject you are interested in, or have experience in, but it is equally, if not more, likely that it will be a subject that has been vacated by someone. And so begins the hierarchy. Let’s assume that this NQT/ECT has a career aspirations to be a senior leader at some point. How do they get there?

In primary schools, the route seems to be broken down into a few key parts, You start of as a leader of a subject slightly lower down the hierarchy referenced above. Depending on your ambition, you may do this for a few years, working hard to drive the subject forward and develop an understanding of strategic leadership. However, you know that if you want to progress, you need to stop leading computing and take on a ‘bigger’ subject, like science. Through your appraisal, this has been identified and, fortunately, there is now an opportunity to lead science, so you are ‘promoted’ to lead science. You do this for a few years but feel like the only way you can move towards the SLT is to lead a ‘core’ subject. So, again, after a few years of leading science where you have developed the subject through your leadership, you take on leading English and so are again ‘promoted’. The leadership of English gives you the perfect platform to move into SLT in the next few years and so your journey to leadership is complete.

What this story doesn’t cover, is that this fictional teacher started off leading DT, a subject which they studied to A-level (unlike science or English), took an additional study in it at university as part of their degree and also have a personal interest in as a hobby. The teacher left leading a subject they were knowledgable and passionate about because leading that subject did not have enough professional opportunities.

While this teacher had developed their leadership ability and they would move both science and English forward as a result of this, what happened to DT once it was vacated? It is likely that this was then given to the next new teacher to learn about subject leadership. Once again, we are feeding the Matthew Effect and poor DT stays in a state of flux where its progression is rarely sustained.

The way forward

One of the biggest challenges in primary is that we have to cover so many subjects – you could say we are ‘Jacks of all trades, but masters of none’. We therefore need to do everything we can to support our teachers to teach subjects where they are less expert. To do this really well, I think we need to ditch the hierarchies of subjects and leadership. It is a bit silly that we could have a DT expert in the school not leading DT, purely because they feel that the only way to progress is to lead a core subject.

I am also in no way playing down the importance of English and maths. There is no doubt that they are important for our children, but developing all of the subjects in the curriculum will have benefits for English and maths too. We also need to recognise that children will have untapped potential in other subjects which if we do not uncover, may lay dormant. When we prepare to send children to secondary school, we should be looking to send them on ready in every subject, not just those recognised by SATs.

Value all subjects equally

If we are to see the end of subject hierarchy, there needs to be a conscious effort to value all subjects equally. We need for teachers and children to see that developing knowledge and skill in one subject is just as important as another. We need to make sure we timetable effectively so that no one subject is ever pushed due to lack of time.

Recognise your experts

The first thing I think we need to do more of is to recognise our subject experts. If we want sustained improvement in a subject, it may benefit from sustained and continuous leadership from an expert (if you are fortunate enough to have one). We need to do more to make it attractive to stay in post because of the subject and make it clear that it will not affect any progression, perceived or otherwise.

Rethink leadership progression

We need to make it clear that the progression to leadership (for those that want it) is not dependent on the subjects that you lead, but more by the leadership of the subject you lead. A leader of DT (sorry to keep with the same analogy!) should be able to move directly to senior leadership if through their leadership they have gained the skills, knowledge and expertise which will enable them to be a successful senior leader.

Share expertise

This is perhaps a trickier one to realise, and it only came about through random thoughts at ResearchEd. It is very possible that, in a school, there isn’t a specialist in a subject area. With subject knowledge so important not just for children, but for teachers too, how does a subject without a subject expert make that sustained change? I think this is where we could look at how we share our expertise. If we recognise our experts, and make it attractive to lead every subject regardless of its position on the perceived hierarchy, they is there any reason that a subject leader has to be in the school? There may be another school who has more than one expert in a subject area. Although this could mean that the subject is really well developed in one school, could that expertise be shared to support a school without an expert? I think, with good communication and a clear understanding of the strategic development needed to lead a subject forward, there is no reason that this couldn’t work successfully. I appreciate that this may be easier in a MAT where there is already that shared understanding, but sometimes, thinking differently can solve a problem.

If you always do …

… what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. This hierarchy seems to have always been the same, despite the change of frameworks and renewed focus on curriculum. As Dylan William says, sometimes the only way to improve is to stop doing good things to allow yourself to do even better things. Perhaps it’s time we changed our mindsets about the primary subjects.

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