Subject leadership in primary schools – how to be a great leader

From associations and curriculum to Ofsted and observations, Matthew Lane talks us through the what, why and how of subject leadership…

Matthew Lane
by Matthew Lane
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Leading a subject is a very contextual beast. At secondary it means you could be running a large department of multiple staff, all focused on one area.

Whereas, at primary you’re more likely to be coordinating the whole school of class teachers, and you might even be in charge of two or three subjects. So, what do you do when the headteacher knocks on your door and asks you to lead for the first time?

What should I know?

You may not have a degree in your assigned subject, but even if you do, it’s time to get learning. First off, check the National Curriculum so you have a solid grasp of what is expected and any nuances.

It may be that there is no National Curriculum for your subject and in this case, you need to refer to your Trust or a Local Agreed Syllabus for information. Check if there are legal entitlements or conditions, too. This is especially important if leading PE or RE.

Hopefully you will have the previous lead to go to and ask for help and advice. But if you don’t, for whatever reason, fear not: there are solid communities around each subject. Many associations offer great benefits for joining, such as magazines, access to CPD and special events to enhance your subject knowledge.

There will be benefits for your school too, so ensure you ask the head to pay for this membership. You can find a directory from the Council for Subject Associations at

However, don’t expect to learn everything at once. Ask around the staffroom – you may find that someone has led your subject in the past. If not, find out who leads in neighbouring or cluster schools and visit them to get a rough guide on what to do and where to start.

How do you know what is already going on in your subject? Start digging into the documentation (if there is any). Is there a clear outline of the curriculum? Do you have a map to call upon that lists the topics or units being covered by each year-group?

For some subjects, you could have six year-groups each with six units of six lessons per year. That is 216 lessons to keep track of and understand! While this might sound daunting, all the information should already be out there in lesson plans and presentations by the class teachers.

Go and ask for it and collect it all into one document for your (and Ofsted’s) reference. If there are any gaps, at least you then know where to focus your energy.

Once you have this base, think about pedagogical approaches and how you assess your subject. What does the available data show you? What does your subject look like in younger or older year groups? Again, this is a time to be inquisitive and ask other teachers how they deliver their lessons and assess learning.

Ofsted subject leader questions

As for official accountability, while we don’t do our jobs for Ofsted, you will also need answers for the three ‘I’s. What is the intent (or aim) of your subject? How is this being implemented through your school’s curriculum?

And how are you measuring the impact of this learning? How do you know if the impact of the learning is meeting your intent? Many web and magazine pages are filled with ideas and guidance on writing your three ‘I’s. NASUWT is a good place to start; Teacher Toolkit and the government blog have useful info, too.

Kicking the tires

Now you know the theory, it’s time to see your subject in action. This means looking at books and visiting lessons – and trying not to make yourself unpopular in the process.

A great way to do this is to think of yourself as a curious tourist; watch carefully, ask light and positive questions (suggestions for which are in the resources for this article) and give your colleagues space to show off about their teaching. Ensure that feedback is timely and in-person wherever possible.

You can send an email with what you liked – who doesn’t love good news in their inbox – but present your questions and suggestions face-to-face or via video call. You can then judge the mood and tailor the delivery – rather than your email inadvertently causing upset at an inopportune moment.

How do you lead?

Libraries of books have been written about leadership (my favourites are in the side bar), but the core tenets are integrity, respect and communication.

Integrity means writing a plan and trusting in your staff to deliver it. This doesn’t have to be full of bells and whistles – while SLT or your Twitter community might have some great ideas, make sure to only include those that will work for your school.

It’s also useful to ask yourself if new initiatives are genuinely supporting your staff, or if they just make you look good. As a subject lead, you’ll often find yourself stuck in the middle of demands from higher up, and the needs of the teaching staff.

Knowing your subject well, and earning the respect of your team will stand you in good stead.

A large part of earning this respect is embracing humility. Ensure you give credit where credit is due, own up to your mistakes, and shoulder the blame if something goes wrong. Nobody likes having to admit when things have gone awry, but part of our responsibility is to lead by example, and step up when needed.

This means having respect for others as well. Are you meeting the targets you expect of your fellow teachers? Are you giving people the time and support to meet your expectations? And are they aware of what you’re asking of them?

Communication can make it or break it for you as a leader. If you need something from your team, tell them in person, follow it up with a clear email and deadline, then send a polite reminder nearer the time. And on the subject of emails, forward on resources from subject associations to everyone.

While the majority might delete it, someone may well find it helpful, and it shows you are thinking about your subject year-round rather than just when you are asked to do lesson observations.

Work worth doing

Theodore Roosevelt summed up what it means to be a subject leader when he said “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” Striving to gain subject knowledge and taking the time to know how your team delivers it gives you the integrity you need to succeed as a leader.

Matthew Lane is a teacher and subject leader in Norfolk. Follow him on Twitter @MrMJLane.

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