There are loads of websites out there talking about good maths teaching practice. But what about the leadership of a maths department? Very little, to be honest. This series looks at the art of being a leader in maths, the challenges we face and ideas on how to tackle them.
So, let’s start with the context of the role.
The Head of Mathematics role, or Curriculum Team Leader of Maths, or Director of Numeracy, or whatever you want to call it, is one of the most demanding role in a school, probably just behind Headteacher and just ahead of Head of English.
I’m probably a little bit biased in this regard, but my thoughts are probably confirmed by my current Headteacher, who said to me “I wouldn’t have your job for all the tea in China”. A mentor of mine once said “Assistant Headship is much, much easier than being Head of Maths”. I know these are only two cases, but still, I think I’m right. Also I say the Head of Maths role is tougher than the Head of English role because the bottom line (results) in Maths are down to – particularly this year and into the future – one big final exam at the end of Y11. Whereas in English, there is some ‘control’ in Controlled Assessment (read into that what you will), so the element of the unknown is reduced when it comes to the big day.
Why is this the case?
It started, like most of the bad, bureaucratic nonsense that goes on in schools, as a result of league tables and the National Curriculum.
Mathematics, rightly, was chosen to be a core subject. Firstly the National Curriculum, then the National Numeracy Strategy (and a range of other initiatives) placed the emphasis on good performance in terms of the teaching of Mathematics, something which in terms of intentions is no bad thing.
League tables, however, introduced market forces into a realm that should never have to be subject to them. My thoughts on this will be expanded on in future post, but in simple terms by introducing a ranking system it was only a matter of time before schools were doing everything they can to maintain or get to a favourable position in the tables.
When 5A*-C including English and Maths became the central figure (which I acknowledge is changing) then suddenly everything that a school did became centred on those two subjects. Almost overnight the Sword of Damocles was heavy, ever more visible and on the point of dropping on every Maths leaders head. Worse, for those of us teaching in areas of high socio-economic deprivation, the removal of the contextual value added measure was the equivalent of placing a Sunday league footballer in midfield for England during a World Cup game and then getting the press to do a back-page splash on how poor their performance was.
All of this is placed on a Head of Mathematics’ shoulders before they even consider the students being taught, the staff they have to manage, the curriculum content to cover, the exams they have to prepare for (2015! My word!), the SLT they have to report to, the tiny budget they’ve got to spend and endless other responsibilities.
So why do the job? What insane person would even consider it, taking into account all of these things?
I was lucky enough to be taught by a head of Maths. He had the job because a) he was the best teacher, and b) he was the most experienced in the department. I know this because he told me this (he was modest too).
However – I don’t think these criteria should be the determining factors of what makes a great leader of Mathematics. Great teachers are not necessarily great leaders, whilst experience can be a hindrance as much as benefit, with some highly experienced staff often doing what they’ve always done despite frequent changes in curriculum, assessment, staffing structures and, let’s be honest, the attention span of the students.
The best heads of Maths are not necessarily the best teachers – but will have good subject knowledge and a secure understanding of exam specifications. They’re not necessarily the most experienced, but should hold authority and respect in the department, because of the integrity and authenticity of their actions.
Heads of Mathematics should not be ‘career’ teachers either; those characters who’ll do anything to climb up the ladder and not think twice of the consequence of their actions. Anyone who does that in such a central and highly scrutinised role is only going to be found out and have their bluff called.
A head of Maths should:
- Love their subject
- Lead by example
- Play to the strengths of their team
- Challenge their staff
- Communicate clearly and effectively
- Constantly reflect on their practice
- Listen to those both from above and below
- Know their students
I’ll be looking at all of these aspects and more in due course as part of this series. If anyone reading this has any views on the matter of departmental leadership and its benefits, I’d love to hear from you via Twitter or e-mail – see my ‘About’ page for more details.