New to Head of Science role? Blog post from SLE for Science.

SLE Blog – Science department to run? 10 steps to stop you going barmy.

Middle Leaders are the heartbeat of the school. It is a rewarding and highly demanding role that carries with it an extraordinarily high level of accountability. The middle leader is accountable – in all directions -downwards to your team, upwards to SLG, and sideways to middle-leader peer-support and development. This responsibility can be very daunting.

As an SLE over the last three years, I have been privileged to work with some wonderful Headteachers, Heads of Science Departments and Science teams. This blog post allows me to capture the basic structure that I believe underpins a successful science department. This blog does not cover the complex and multifaceted human interactions that require skill, patience and determination to get the best from any team. But get the basics right in the first place and you can work on the human factor throughout the year. I look back over my SLE time with fondness and gratitude for the lessons it has taught me.

Many schools across the UK are running with under-staffed science departments, or making ends meet with supply teachers, because quality science teachers are hard to find, and even harder to hold on to. Many good teachers have found themselves moving quickly up the ranks to the giddy heights of HoD, and sometimes they do not always feel well prepared to meet the challenge. Frequently dedicated teachers ‘step-up’ because they want to do the best for their school, and find themselves with a great deal of responsibility and insufficient experience. Each science department I have worked with has had its own specific challenges and these are set within the unique context of the whole school picture. So what follows below is a guide to help aspiring or newly appointed HoDs to get to grips with a very demanding role. A checklist if you will – that might help a new middle leader make some good strategic decisions. As a new leader it’s nice to make new gains swiftly.

A secondary reason for writing this particular blog lies in response to teacher standards and the dreaded performance related pay issues. Sometimes inexperienced middle leaders become overwhelmed and make many compromises in order to just get the job done quickly, with the materials and staffing they have. A quick fix, will not often find the best deal for students, nor will it consider the need to empower each individual teacher enabling him or her to gather evidence of their personal effectiveness in the classroom. These issues to design the best deal for students and for teachers are not mutually exclusive; it simply requires a sensitive balancing act. The ability to step back from the panic of deadlines, threats and promises, is crucial. Give yourself time to think logically and strategically about how to put all the different shaped jigsaw pieces into the best positions to provide a curriculum for your team and your students that you will be proud of in the year ahead. If you are still unsure – ask your HT for a coach, to bounce your ideas off and to help you reach sound solutions to your problems.

My brief when I arrive in a new school usually runs along the lines of…..“Science teachers are like hen’s teeth in this part of the UK, so please help us by {whatever means necessary} to run an even more effective department.” The musings below may, or may not, be helpful for people who find themselves with a science (or possibly any other) department to run. If you already know how to suck-eggs and juggle six balls, whilst keeping a pride of Lions from eating you, you need read no further. You will be an excellent Middle Leader. If you’re new to the post and would like a little bit of help from experience gained in numerous science departments across the country then read on and pick out the bits you like.

And so, here follows 10 steps to start you off on the right foot.

  1. Curriculum time – Usually you will have no control over this, but whatever you are given, you need to make it work for you. If the time allocation is changed, decide how you change your courses to fit into the time available. Be very clear about your expectations concerning curriculum coverage and the timescale for coverage divided into manageable portions for strategic monitoring.
  2. Exam board – once again these decisions are frequently inherited (many new HoDs keep the existing exam board – better the devil you know), each board offers suitable courses to suit all types of students. But check out all the other exam boards with a pros and cons list, to ensure you are happy you have made the correct choices for your students.
  3. Exam courses – currently we still have Core, Additional or Triple Science as the staple fare, with other level 1 and level 2 choices to consider. This future of this choice is very much “watch this space” as the exam boards are yet to fully unveil their new GCSE courses.
  4. Planning the timetable for Intelligent-Accountability.
    • So now you know your curriculum time, you have carefully considered the courses you need to run, next comes strategic planning to get the best deal for your students and your teachers.
    • Try to minimize split groups for lower years, young students arriving to secondary school are already moving to multiple different subject teachers, it will really help the young students develop their skills in science to have just one teacher or a pair of teachers if you wish to use one teacher to support or mentor another teacher.
    • In KS4 it is more desirable, but not essential and sometimes not even possible, to have subject specialist teachers in biology, chemistry and physics. Working with the specialist-staff-base you have, try to organize your exam course curriculum to allow each teacher to have an aspect of the course that will deliver real exam results. So if you lack subject specialists for instance, AQA Addition Science route 2 has two “coordinated” exam papers and a coursework component. By putting a pair of teachers together you can address subject shortage areas (lack of physics teachers for example) and give each teacher sole responsibility for one exam paper. Teachers can celebrate their exam successes; gathering strong data of their effectiveness in the classroom and you can correctly identify and share these strengths in the department and provide the right support for other teachers to eventually improve the outcomes for even more students over time.
    • For non-exam groups and younger year groups consider having an internal, but very formal, end-of-year exam to make sure that teachers without an exam group can still gather valid evidence of their personal effectiveness in the classroom. This system also has the added bonuses of ensuring the course content has been covered, and that gaps in performance are not allowed to grow year-on-year, but rather they are identified and begin to be addressed immediately. Once again as HoD you can celebrate and share the good practice and provide the correct level of support for other teachers where needed.
  1. Planning your routes through GCSE.   Ignore the utterly ridiculous “Data Dashboard” for science, which measures the proportion that passed of the proportion of students that took two science GCSEs! Instead work out your percentages of the whole cohort over the last few years and decide what those data say. Then calculate and plan for a challenging but reasonable increased proportion. Good results take a few years to roll through to actual outcomes. You will probably be expected to do better even sooner. Stay optimistic and do your best, your students will rise to the challenge if you offer them the chance.
    • Make sure your whole curriculum fits the limited time available – your lesson time runs out as soon as the very first GCSE exam starts – so find out from the exam secretary what that date is, subtract a few more lessons for ‘Fire, Flood or INSET days”. Then subtract a few more days to build in formal assessment and reflection time, even if you have to put a squeeze on the content. Teachers and students need time to reflect on where they are, and how to close gaps.
    • Ensure you can build in flexibility for students that make better, or slower than expected progress, to be moved into a more appropriate group for their needs. This means having the curriculum designed in a way (these topics “x y z” must be covered by assessment point 1) that allows parallel groups at certain designated times throughout the year to be at an identical point with regard to subject coverage. At these designated points students can be moved appropriately with minimum stress.
    • Design proper tests for this purpose, write a fair and beautiful test that covers the curriculum taught – don’t just throw whole ‘a-z papers’ at students that have only been taught “x y z”. Tests should be challenging, fair and appropriate to the work covered – otherwise you find out nothing about progress and worse you have simply added more stress to students by testing them on things you haven’t taught them, and even worse still your teachers are marking papers that bear absolutely no relation to the impact they have, or have not, been making with their students.
  1. Tracking progress

For the love of sanity do not have a million different tracking sheets that chart every lesson for every group on every course, you would need a full time PA to be able to manage that system effectively and no-one will fill in the sheets (except the already overwhelmed trainees). Besides teachers already do individual mark-sheets for themselves – in their mark-books. Do download the student data from your management system so as a middle leader you can identify and track all the relevant sub-groups. Empower and expect your teachers to run effective personal mark-books (also with sub-group information that you have provided) – train them if you need to and trust them to take a professional pride in the responsibility they have to their students, do NOT micro-manage. Have just one tracker per year group, with one sheet in that tracker for each course. This way you cannot “lose” students if individuals, groups or courses are changed. Only collect information that is valid on the tracker, such as interim test data and end of unit tests. When you’ve decided what the least amount of hard evidence you need is, stick to it, insist everyone sticks to it, remind everyone when the tracker is due for an update, and if necessary get admin support to input it. Then use the tracker to identify students / groups / teachers that need support (or identify the tests that were not fit for purpose or incorrectly graded). It takes a bit of time and effort to run an effective tracker. One final point on tracking, there is no point running a tracker – if your tests / data are not fit for purpose – or if you don’t actually use the information you have collected on the tracker for intervention identification.

  1. Reporting progress

Again, the timing will be pre-decided by your school. However you will know when its happening, and it’s another part of your role to ensure that at this point in time, your team have got some proper valid evidence to support their judgment on student progress (allowing sufficient time for marking). Also build in time for teachers to come together and discuss their experiences of the shared group. Do not make multiple teachers write reports, designate one teacher per group, and share this out equitably amongst your team. Ensure your team is trained in the various definitions for effort etc. If the school doesn’t provide generic definitions, then as a team decide on terminology that you will use consistently across science to provide a quality that is balanced across many teachers. When you get draft reports for proof reading you will be able to see if any students / groups / teachers are struggling and need some support. And finally identify those areas of excellent reporting practice and ask those teachers to share their skills at a department meeting.

  1. Training your team
  • As an SLE I frequently broker the needs of the HT and the whole school targets with the development needs of the Science team, to ensure the best outcomes for students (which is what we all want). So if the main “thing” for the school is Literacy, then when planning strategically with the HoD for science – we work together to ensure the main “thing” is at the heart of the plan. This cuts down workload and relieves the stress for everyone by doing both jobs at the same time. It also embeds the main “thing” as part of the core and normal practice across the team. This synchronicity of needs, strips away any “us vs. them mentality” and replaces it with collaboration for the common good.
  • Exam boards offer an on-line tool for HoDs to analyse every question on every paper taken in the summer comparing your school’s performance to the national picture. Use this online tool (ideally with your team) to see where you performed well and where the performance fell away from national norms – this will be a strong guide to development issues, that you need to address urgently for next year.
  • It is very useful for a new HoD to make a list of each teacher in your department, along with what you consider to be his or her main CPD need. Then meet your team one-to-one (without the list!) and find out what their personal CPD priority is. If the two lists are at odds with each other little or no CPD will occur, just a battle of wills, the losers in these battles are the students. Allow teachers to decide their own CPD need; empowered teachers will drive their own CPD far more effectively than will be achieved if you force them onto a programme of your design. You may find that groups of two or more teachers all request similar training needs – so that will help you form teacher sub-groups that can develop together and feedback their findings, on a termly basis, to improve the science team as a whole. As a HoD you will be able to steer departmental meetings to reach some or all of your personally identified goals over the year ahead.
  1. Sharing the practice, open door, work scrutiny etc.
    • Teaching is both an art and a science. Each teacher is unique and as the leader you must embrace all styles despite your own personal preferences. There will of course be a certain amount of conformity that all teachers must adhere to regarding various whole school policies, curriculum route etc. This rigidity is counter-balanced by empowering teachers to be confident in their own style and space. Teachers in your team need to feel secure of your support if you are going to be wandering frequently into lessons looking for evidence of progress in its many guises. In some schools this is a big thorny issue – in other schools this is normal practice. Teachers need to see each other teaching and provide support for each other to develop well. It is a good idea at the start of the year to plan what you will look at and when it will happen. The two most significant drivers of progress are the quality of the teaching (science is exceptionally content heavy) and the quality of the learning (learning is hard work if it’s going to stick). Personally I am not a fan of calling for books and book trawls, I prefer to see students and their books in action in the classroom. Dialogue is king (at the moment) this can lead to over-marking which is a serious drain on teacher time. Books can also look fantastic and just be mostly worksheets and copying notes. Different groups / courses lend themselves to different marking techniques, so again showcase the choices and let teachers choose and practice the type of marking that will work best for each group they teach. Each teacher has to decide how to make their marking fit into their professional life. Work as a team to develop ways for marking to be both powerful and manageable. As a leader remind the team when you will be coming into lessons and what you will be looking for. Teachers can be prepared to showcase good examples of best practice to coincide with the plan. Meeting time can be used to discuss ideas and research ahead of time and then follow-up meetings can allow feedback. As HoD you are the person provided with extra time, so either you do all the “walks” or you cover colleagues’ lessons on rotation so each member of the team gets to see the whole team in action over the term. Meeting time will hopefully (mostly) be about teachers developing teachers throughout the year.
  2. Succession planning
    • Finally plan your future, what next for you? Running an effective science team is very time consuming. How can you ensure you raise your head above the parapet every now and then to see what the future holds for you? How will you nurture and develop every member of your team so they too can become Heads of Subject, Heads of Department, or branch off to follow a more pastoral route in their own careers? The connections you can foster on behalf of members of your team, via your fellow middle leaders, to identify counterparts in other areas of the school will be invaluable to them.   Strengthening cross-curricular links, leading to all sorts of education research projects that will enrich the whole school as well as developing the individual teachers so they can become more successful in their own practice and in their careers.

Well – I hope there is something useful that can be taken from the tips above. It has been immense fun being an SLE I have learnt so much from each and every school I have worked with. What has impressed me most of all, is the astounding dedication of so many teachers, working in very difficult circumstances. When I am approached to work with a new school my arrival is frequently dreaded as a sort of ‘inspector’. However by the time I leave a school (not necessarily on the first time I leave it!) I am more like a trusted friend and mentor. Being a HoD remains without a doubt the MOST IMPORTANT job in the school. This role (I mean YOU) drives progress for your students and your teachers. Good Luck HoDs and thank you.

Feeding back the results from last blog. “DIRTy SOLO and marking-every-lesson”. I was trying anything to get a difficult year 10 group to successfully pass GCSE science at the end of Y10. They had already failed in in Y9 (14 D grades and 10 E grades).  This summer the group made an average improvement of one and half GCSE grades (equivalent to 2 years progress in a year).  The final tally was 1A, 6B and 17 C grades. So I would count that as a highly positive outcome. And I didn’t go insane -bonus!

So taking each of the three strategies in turn….

DIRT – I loved  this and it worked really well, after a little training, the students responded to the next steps or corrections they were directed to.  They looked forward to getting their books back, to see what they need to do as their next steps. I have kept this going this year with all my groups and every class seems to gain a great deal from the reflective practice.

SOLO, I still love this but I mainly used it as an aide-memoire for myself, targeting the style of questioning. Closed factual recall (they really needed to improve recall), linking ideas together or expanding to relate the topic to other areas.  So SOLO was very helpful, but much more helpful for me than for them. Just the mental image of the SOLO graphics was enough for me to consider how to phrase my directed questions.

Marking Every Lesson.  Students loved this, on the few occasions where I let this slip they were quite forgiving but clearly disappointed. There were occasions when I just couldn’t keep up with the demand on my time, but generally speaking I tried to ensure their work was marked after every lesson. No matter how briefly – just asking for a final summary sentence – if I had precious little time to offer between lessons to tackle the marking.  I still try to do this, as it is highly motivating, but I am more careful to use other activities on occasion to give myself a break from the task.  OR just award a quick CODE so if a student gets an “X” they do this task, a “Y” means do this task etc. Not an ideal solution and far less effective than using a directed sentence. But students preferred this brevity of marking to no marking at all.

WAS IT SUCCESSFUL?  well yes, spectacularly so BUT it’s complicated! Half the students were moved out of the group and another half moved in around Easter time, so the new bods were a little behind the whole initiative.  However, they responded quickly.  What I was extremely pleased to see, was the original students had gained a great deal of resilience due to the strategies that I had been using, and the students new to the group could see the difference between themselves and the way the others got started on working straight away in lessons. The original students were more self-directed and able to use other sources to move their learning forward while waiting for me to get round the room.  Therefore the new bods had good role models of more responsible learning and they caught on as quickly as they could.

The average increase of one and a half GCSE grades in one year, was actually nearer to two full grades for the original half of the group that I had taught since October, and nearer to one GCSE Grade for the half joining me at Easter.  The gains in learning skills will remain with these students in year 11 and so my hard work last year, will also help the teachers that have these students this year.

This research is far too convoluted and complex to disect into the component parts. Therefore I cannot say if any one strategy was successful over any other one.  Probably students responded differently to the three initiatives.  My gut feeling was the carefully structured directed writing (in silence) at the end of the lesson made students responsible for ensuring the content of the lesson had been learnt well enough to be articulated clearly in writing in a new context. This followed by marking every lesson and providing DIRT at the start of each lesson, helped me address any redirect any remaining problems, before moving on.

DIRTy marking every lesson.  Is the FUTURE for me.




DIRTy SOLO and marking every lesson.

When the going gets tough…. The year 10 GCSE science students in my recently acquired group are stuck on D grade – they give very simplistic answers with unconnected reasoning, and they have poor metalanguage skills.  So in order to help this challenging class become better learners I am trialling three strategies, ideas shamelessly stolen from much better and generous practitioners…. Firstly SOLO taxonomy, from the marvellous work by Pam Hook @arti_choke,  I found Pam by reading SOLO heaven on Stephen Tierney’s blog @leadinglearner . A few teachers at school have dabbled with SOLO but it is not widely used. The more complex SOLO terminology of pre-structural and relational etc. will be drip-fed into the lessons over time as more students become receptive to working with me to improve their knowledge. I took the SOLO diagrams which perfectly illustrate what students need to do to move further forwards in their thinking and writing.  I did use some other words that I saw being associated with each SOLO level, to help the students see the processes that could extend their thinking and writing. And I also linked each stage to a grade (expected at our school) – which is not so cleverly disguised as a word. My adaptation of the SOLO model now looks like this…


Secondly DIRT (Directed Improvement and Reflection Time) this strategy is widely used across the school – so students actually took to this quite quickly.  However much nagging was needed, as they would try to write as little as possible to answer the directed activity. The aim was for students to spend more time responding than I took marking.

Thirdly “What if I marked every lesson” from @joe_kirby’s blog “what if you marked every book every lesson?”  Instead of colour coding achievement, I marked only the starting point knowledge and the final plenary paragraph. To provide a ‘before’ and ‘after’ grade (talk about progress in lesson!) With this group I simply could not wait three or four lessons to mark their work. By then the first two lessons would have been lost completely from their minds. Except for their proudly exhibited skill of randomly shouting out various key-words, which may or may not be related to the actual topic.

I am really fortunate to have 100 min lessons – so it is possible to plan for and deliver these three strategies in each lesson.  Lessons start with me patrolling and encouraging / enforcing DIRT for 10-15 minutes. The lesson objectives (yes they do copy these down – so I can remind them they do know what they were!) and a vocabulary sheet to stick in for today’s lesson (usually 8-10 words and definitions). Under the objectives they have to write…. “What I already know about this topic is…..”  Again I circulate to encourage / enforce so the students can more quietly suggest random words that may or may not be related to the actual topic. I can also prompt for meanings of the proffered words to get a better understanding of the starting point for the class.  My more cooperative students use this time to browse through their revision guides to get ahead of the game (I love them). The teaching bit comes next I try to use images, and multi-media as much as possible, using dialogic questioning to engage students to use the new vocabulary.  Then there is an activity of some sort to allow discussion around the task and consolidation.  This all sounds blissfully organised, but you need to imagine a backdrop of “bash-the-rat” from me, to curtail all manner of deflection techniques from the more reluctant learners.  In the plenary we go back to the L.O. and the new vocabulary.  Finally (and to preserve my sanity) students move to “test positions” and I give them 15 mins to write about what they have learnt.  There is a structure to support this which allows demonstration of both knowledge aquisition and vocabulary usage. Marking every lesson – To preserve my sanity I mark only… 1. The response they made to complete (or not) the DIRT activity. 2. They get a “starting point grade” for what was written at the start of the lesson. 3. They get a “Progress made today” grade for their free writing at the end. 4. I provide new DIRT questions for next lesson.

That sounds like a lot, it IS a lot – but it takes just under 4 mins per book (and happily I’m getting faster) so that’s about one and a half hours.  If I’ve done it well, the students have to take longer than this responding to the questions I asked them. My success criteria will be 1. reduced disruption to lesson (as measured by total number of consequences given) 2. Increased number of students operating at C grade or above. Both criteria can be easily measured and will help me gauge the success of “DIRTy SOLO marking.”

Next blog will report back on the success of the strategies. Firstly behaviour to see if that did improve and also if student’s ability to express their scientific understanding has improved.

How it all began.

A Mile Wide An Inch Deep.

Secondary science education has been likened to an ocean of knowledge “a mile wide and an inch deep”. Even with generous allocation time, science teachers have to fill every lesson with new words, facts and concepts. The move to linear exams requires students to assimlate a very large body of knowledge and for many students this is not an easy task. I started this blog to help me see my own “Progress over time.”

Part way through the year, I was given a challenging year 10 science class that had gained D grades in GCSE science the previous summer. And I discover, they are pretty much still stuck on D grades now.  The class is a tale of two halves. The first half are cooperative and willing,  with weak literacy skills and poor knowledge bases. These students respond well to teaching and feedback. The other half of the class, are more able students that exhibit continual low-level disruption in order to deflect from the hard work of actual learning. Their deflection techniques are legendary.

I spent my first half term with them on coursework. This helped, as every man (student) and his dog, seems to appreciate the value coursework brings to improving the overall grade.  However, subject knowledge for exams, was and is where our problem lies.  I spent half a term using exam questions and mark scheme answers to try to illustrate the knowledge, vocabulary and skills of meta-language needed. But this did nothing to raise their grades nor did it improve the quality of their understanding or writing. Nor did it improve behaviour in lessons. My own sanity waning fast. On Twitter I found teachers trying all kinds of different things. So began my journey to select the next tools to get this class working on knowledge acquisition, meta-language and scientific literacy to raise their aspirations and grades in science.

Like a Magpie at a jewellers shop – The three tools I selected to try were “What if I marked every lesson?,” DIRT and SOLO taxonomy. You can guess at my desperation, that I needed to use three strategies simultaneously to start closing this gap. My success criteria will be – finally breaking more students through the C barrier, and as students begin to take more personal responsibility for their learning, reducing the low-level disruption. “DIRTy SOLO every lesson” – here I come.