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The Tip of the Iceberg: Notes from a new Head of Department

Published • Blog
Andrew Stone, Head of History at SFX, talks about the experience of preparing to take on a new role
The end of the summer term is a good time for a cathartic purge of accumulated mess and, with an office move imminent, the need to sort and recycle couldn’t be put off any longer. So I put on some nineties Indie music and got to work. 

The reason for the office move was my recent appointment as Head of History. Although mildly disappointed that this didn’t provide me with sovereignty over the entirety of the past (with a time machine to tweak the numerous errors we’ve committed, Doctor Who style), I was looking forward to the challenge. 

Any new role can be daunting though, so it was useful to go on a day’s training delivered by Keynote Educational for fellow newbies on “Challenges, Opportunities, Approaches to Excellence”. My half-cleansed office would just have to wait, I told myself.

One of the introductory ‘thoughts to consider’ employed an iceberg metaphor. An iceberg is typically 90% submerged (I’ll take the word of Geographers on this) and in the same way, the skills, beliefs, values, identity, purpose and mission of a teacher – or a head of department – are not immediately visible to students or colleagues. The only way they become visible is through what’s above the waterline – the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg’ – in our environment and behaviours. So, we were told, show your confidence and capabilities through your voice and body language. And show your organisational skills through your tidy office desk (uh-oh).

It was useful to share experiences from a diverse range of colleagues. The majority were from secondary schools, from a mixture of subjects, with widely differing departmental sizes. But there were enough commonalities to draw some fruitful conclusions, one of which was that a human conversation is normally preferable to an email. Another was the need to take stock of what’s working and what’s not, and to be prepared to change tack – but not to pile on new initiatives without scaling back or mothballing old ones. And skills such as the ability to inspire and empower, adapt and delegate, to be resilient and show humility are all excellent standards to set yourself.

Although they rightly didn’t reduce everything to this, an unavoidable aspect of the training was the new Ofsted framework and the role of heads of department within it, which is considerable. The three main buzzwords are Intent, Implementation and Impact. These can broadly be summarised as:
1) What is to be taught and why?
2) How is it to be taught, and when?
3) How will you demonstrate impact on learners personally, socially and intellectually?

1) I’ve already been doing some initial planning for a curriculum change for the 2020-21 cohort, as I think a course with more 20th century British and American history will potentially recruit more students and provide more obvious links to Politics and English Literature. I’ll write more on this in the future (try to contain your anticipation until then). For this year we are sticking with the trusty Tudor and Stuart based courses.

2) The macro-lessons we use at SFX provide good opportunities for deeper research and evaluation.  I am continuing to shift the emphasis and expectations towards preparatory reading ahead of lessons that can then be analysed and developed in class. As long as students buy into this approach it can make lessons both more engaging and provoke higher order thinking.

3) An important way (though not, of course, an uncontentious one) of demonstrating impact on students is through data. The training included a workshop focused on the alphabet soup of acronyms educators have to deal with and their uses and abuses. Data is apparently less central to the new Ofsted framework though, and other evidence relating to student wellbeing, engagement, metacognition etc is also necessary.

Wait… metacognition?

In simple terms, this means students “knowing they know what they know”. In practice, this means them understanding what they are learning about, including the rationale for why it is important (beyond “so I can earn the big bucks”) and why we are learning about it the way we are. It’s tempting to ask them to write the schemes of work for themselves, but I suspect that would be taking delegation a step too far.
Obviously a day’s training can’t prepare you for everything a new role will require. It’s only, to labour the metaphor, the tip of the iceberg. For now though, I have a desk to tidy.