Being Head of Geography: navigating the complexities of departmental leadership

In this second blog about the GA Conference 2021 I want to share some of the key points discussed in my session on departmental leadership. Responding to a historic lack of CPD available on effective middle leadership I shared some thoughts, reflections and ‘lessons learnt’ from my first 5 years as a Head of Geography. In this blog, I’m going to focus on my lessons learnt.

Lesson 1: The importance of a vision

What is your departmental vision? What are you aiming for?

The importance of a departmental vision is something that I’ve learnt the hard way. In my first HOD role I had no real vision beyond teaching the best geography possible each day. Now I’d argue there’s nothing wrong with that as the basis of a vision but there is definitely a better way than just firefighting your way through each term without any clear idea of what you want to achieve and how you’re going to get there. Having a vision means knowing what the department are working towards, what a ‘good geographer’ looks like at your school, and how you plan to achieve this. Through formulating, discussing and critiquing your vision together, not only will it help the department be more aligned but it also aids your curriculum planning and, ultimately, makes teaching more effective.

Lesson 2: Actively sharing that vision and your thinking

Why are you doing what you’re doing? What is behind your thinking and any resultant changes?

If my first lesson was the importance of having a vision then my second was the importance of actively sharing that vision. It is not enough to write a vision, create a vision document and hope it comes to life… after all, things have to be lived, not just laminated (my favourite quote in education!).

I would argue that this is particularly the case for more inexperienced members of staff. The inexperienced eye will only see the surface features– they’ll see the resources or the new approach to try in lessons but will they see the thinking behind it? One of the main things I’ve learnt as HOD is the importance of working really hard to share this. This isn’t easy but can be done through using departmental meetings properly – more on that here.

Lesson 3: Tightening is important but loosening is equally so.

This third and final lesson relates to this quote from Roy Blatchford in his book ‘The Three Minute Leader’:

“On a school improvement journey, tighten the systems and the expectations- and good provision will be realised.  On the journey to excellent, by all means ‘loosen’– but don’t stop tightening. It’s not an either / or. Choose carefully which aspects of the organisation can be loosened, or the previous gains will be compromised.” (p.36)

I like this quote because depending on the context of the department you inherit, some rapid improvements to good might be needed. Work out what you need to tighten across the department. Do you need to be tight on the challenge in lessons for example? Does this need to be a priority that requires you implementing some new ideas or routines? If so, do this in order to achieve consistency.

However, the key is knowing when to loosen off and what to loosen off. If you know that something is now done well across the department then let that go and focus less on that – but still focus enough on it to maintain it – a very hard balance and something I definitely didn’t get right at first!

Kate Stockings is Head of Geography at The Hampstead School having completed her PGCE at the University of Cambridge 2014-2015. She is an author for OUP and has completed her Masters in Education.