Category Archives: Building a Department

Building a Department: Curriculum Design, part 1

There is no cost difference between incarceration and an Ivy League education; the main difference is curriculum.

Paul Hawken

There’s a lesson I’ve learned in the steadily growing number of years that I’ve been in middle and now senior leadership: quite simply, systems beat ‘stuff’. In other words, you can use what ever materials and ideas you want in teaching and learning, but it’s how they fit together into a system as a whole that truly matters.

Designing and putting together a curriculum is not easy. It’s got to have a breadth to serve what ever purpose its study ultimately requires; a depth that allows for fluency and confidence in the use and manipulation of concepts to develop; opportunities to review and reinforce prior learning; flexibility to respond to the needs of individual groups and students; a balance of detail between prescription and autonomy. In addition to all of this, you’ve got to allow for opportunities to assess progress at varying degrees of detail, checking and responding to the effectiveness of your curriculum overall.

Before we go each of the points outlined above, and start to think about how one can start addressing some of these issues, there’s an elephant in the room that needs addressing.

What should your curriculum serve as its purpose?

I’ve mentioned before that there are ultimately two poles of thought when it comes to determining purpose when teaching Mathematics in Secondary education: are we here to turn students into mathematicians, or are we here to get them the best qualification possible? It’s a morally challenging one, but I’ve also mentioned before that the two sides are not mutually exclusive. However in the context of how the GCSE programme of study is structured, and the obligations on schools to deliver in terms of student progress pegged to levels and grades, then the best qualifications possible take priority. I do feel, however, that we have a moral obligation to give students as rounded an understanding of our subject as possible, even within the very tight constraints our vocation is placed within.

With that in mind, let’s go through the various facets of curriculum design.


As an absolute minimum, any curriculum one designs should be built around whatever the GCSE programme of study your students are expected to cover. This may seem like you are teaching to the test, but remember my point above – it is the nature of our vocation presently that this must take precendence over anything else. It is great to have the aims of creating a whole school of students skilled in the art of problem solving and thinking truly mathematically, but if you’ve only got three hours a week with a class, you simply don’t have the time. If you’re lucky enough to have significantly more than that, you can then start to develop that more rounded approach I alluded to earlier.

Time really is a factor. When the occasion comes to discussing timetabling the whole school curriculum, you should fight for as much lesson time as much as possible. I am a great believer in the need for a balanced curriculum that encompasses the arts, sciences, humanties and physical education as much as it does English and Mathematics – but you’re the head of department, the servant leader – lesson time is one of the best gifts you can give your staff!

Depth, part 1

Breadth and depth, of course, are inversely proportional to each other, with reference to the time capacity you have in hand. It is at this stage, that I am going to first address the ‘m’ word.

Mastery seems to have undergone an Orwellian, Newspeak-ish variety of interpretations over recent months. The notion of a mastery curriculum is nothing new, and the variety of interpretations causes meaning to be lost and the value of the concept to disappear/be undermined. The central tenet of mastery seems to be ‘do less, better’; narrow the curriculum, and cover concepts as deep as possible for as long as possible.

You’ll see some departments really narrow their curriculum down in Y7 and Y8 so that the core ideas are embedded with the view of accelerating students through the broader skills in Y9-Y11, as a result of their fluency. Other departments will keep a broad range of curriculum strands through Y7-Y11, perhaps not going into as much depth in Y7 and Y8 but exposing students to the wider curriculum earlier with the notion of ‘knitting’ curriculum strands as students move through the syllabus. The latter differs from a spiral curriculum in the sense that longer blocks of time are spent on concept study, usually around four to six weeks.

I have my personal preferences, but whatever way you choose one has to understand that a mastery approach is not just about the curriculum but also wider aspects: an embedded whole-school numeracy policy; an assessment system that allows forgetting, retrieval and review of prior learning (see below); a configuration of units so that concepts that are interconnected are taught together – e.g. for multiplication including area, even though traditionally these would be taught seperately…

Whichever way you look, you’ll see a mastery curriculum, or something that advertises itself as being so. Outcomes are the acid test of a mastery curriculum.

Depth, part 2

Whether or not you plump for a particular flavour of mastery, you’ve then got to decide how you’ll sequence the steps you’ll take in teaching. It’s pretty old school, but my approach has always been:

  • teach the basic principals, methods, processes, etc
  • cover how these can be applied in a range of contexts
  • build connections between what you’re presently covering and what you have, or will be covering.

Well, duh, yeah? This attitude is about as revolutionary as the idea of the Earth revolving round the Sun, but it’s damn effective. That said, this approach often gets questioned, particularly from the constructivist, discovery learning advocates. It’s up to you what you decide, but your experience will guide your hand, and if your experience is minimal, then it’s simple – look at what the best schoos are doing.

The model I outlined above applies at not just the macro level within a unit of a scheme of work, but also at the micro level within the coverage of a topic. But that’s a story for another day.

In terms of what this looks like at the macro level, let’s say you have a unit on ratio. The basic principles might be along the lines of comparing amounts as a ratio and dividing an amount in a given ratio. Applications can include things like finding the whole given the part and ratio, finding other parts given the part and ratio, and contextual problems. Building connections can be done through coverage of drawing pie charts and even stratified sampling, which let’s face are both ratio division problems in different guises. That’s very quick and dirty approach to starting the design of a unit of teaching, but I hope you can get the general idea.

It’s imperative that students get chance as much as possible to build connections. It is the grand challenge of a curriculum that students do not see Mathematics as set of fragmented ideas loosely grouped together, but as a continuum of concepts that are interdependent; conceptual strength and fluency in one area feeds into improvement in other field of the curriculum.


Determining what the purpose of your curriculum is down to what the environment you are working in expects and allows. In most cases, this will start from the GCSE programme of study. Your curriculum should be designed so that students have the time to go into a level of depth that develops fluency and confidence whilst allowing chance for application and building connections across the spectrum of strands within the subject. This is not easy, it is our greatest challenge as departmental leaders, but it is a massive lever in terms of successful teaching and learning.

In the second part of this section, we’ll explore review, flexibility, the balance of prescription and autonomy, and how assessment fits in. Looking forward to it!

Building a Mathematics Department: Assessment

“Of course, it is very important to be sober when you take an exam. Many worthwhile careers in the street-cleansing, fruit-picking and subway-guitar-playing industries have been founded on a lack of understanding of this simple fact.”

Terry Pratchett


There’s a bit in The Fib And Other Stories, by George Layton, the final part of the book, where the protagonist is about to take an exam. He’s prepared by revising the history of the Napoleonic Wars, no other preparation. Just the Napoleonic Wars. His teacher isn’t convinced, and as it transpires, the teacher’s lack of faith is justified: there’s nothing on the Napoleonic Wars in the exam.

The whole book is quite melancholic but this bit in particular always strikes me hard. I always remember thinking – even at a very young age – “how was that allowed to happen?”. But then that’s how it was in those days. There was no such thing as accountability, league tables, progress measures and the like. Students went to school, and if they did well, great, and if they didn’t, well that’s just how it was.

Like most things in education, the picture is very different these days. The goalposts haven’t such moved as been shifted to a completely different field, in a different district. Assessment, rightly or wrongly, is the rudder that steers the departmental ship these days. Values, morals, vision etc are all subject to outcomes – the bottom line. Having a clear idea what the bottom line is going to look like is the difference between a department that is celebrated and left to their own devices and one that is heavily scrutinised and brought under the SLT ‘support’ banner.

I want to clarify something. When I talk about assessment, I’m not talking about students taking the GCSE or A-Level exams proper. I’m talking about how teachers obtain clarity over the knowledge, skills and understanding obtained and retained by students, their fluency in the ideas that are required of them to succeed in Mathematics, and their ability to formulate solutions to problems. I’m talking about finding out what students don’t know. I’m not going to get all Rumsfeldian here, but when you don’t know what students don’t know, how are you going to ensure their success?

‘In house’ assessment

In my mind, there are three levels of ‘in house’ assessment. The first is zero-stakes, formative assessment. The second is low-stakes formative assessment. The third is higher-stakes, summative assessment – although this should also be used formatively. Only the latter should be used to determine the progress of a student. Combined, all three levels of assessment should build the picture of the degree of mastery a student has over a topic.

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

  1. Zero-stakes formative assessment

Simply, this what goes on minute-by-minute in your classroom. Questioning. Mini-whiteboards. Exit tickets. A teacher should be constantly gathering data to inform a) whether students are understanding the concept in hand b) to what degree they understand it and c) how this informs teaching moving forward. Simple in implementation but very effective when done properly.

2. Low-stakes formative assessment

In my department we use regular mini-testing to bookend a block of learning. There’ll be a mixture of questions covering the different ways a topic can be tested, and it forms part of the marking and feedback we give students. No grades are given, just a yes/no judgement against assessment criteria. This is a continuation of what Dani Quinn had put in place, simply because it works. It gives the teacher a stronger picture of the level of understanding a student has acquired. We then have follow up review time to go through the test, addressing key misconceptions and then using DIRT to close any gaps identified. It’s not zero-stakes because the test is done in exam conditions, and we do give some level of judgement on students’ performance. However, it’s low stakes because it doesn’t matter how students perform, they’re given opportunity to close the gap and make progress in that area.

3. High-stakes, summative assessment, used formatively.

It is the nature of the service we are in that we need to get frequent summative judgement of a student’s progress. A test like this should be used to gather an overall understanding of what a students has retained and understood over a longer period of time, ideally around 6 weeks. 6 blocks of assessment every six weeks allows enough time for things to be forgotten and retrieved, whilst frequent enough for a teacher to be responsive to a identified issue, either through lesson planning or intervention. It is imperative that this test is not just on what has been covered in the intervening period – it should cover learning in previous terms, and even previous years, to determine how secure students’ prior learning is.

The teacher, then should be building a topic-level analysis for their class.

Now, David Thomas explained this much better than I ever could. I have my own template that people can use. It’s RAG rated, purely for visualisation purposes, and this is done automatically based on what mark you choose to give for each topic/question. Ultimately, what you’re after is topic and student level analysis.

Topic level analysis determines what you might need to recover or completely re-teach, depending on performance. Don’t forget however, students might have performed particularly well on a topic, but an eye should remain on how students recall these topics over time.

Student level analysis determines with whom you might need to put intervention in place. This might be what you do in the classroom, but more likely time outside of class. Since you have a topic-level analysis rather than a grading, you’ll be able to determine specific interventions rather than trying to affect a too general approach.

But what about grades?

I’m going to say this now. Avoid grading topics. It’s that simple. A Mathematics grade reflects an understanding of an accumulation of topics, rather than particularly being able to provide a solution to a problem at a given standard. Now this is changing, as I’ve alluded to in a previous post, and assessments should reflect that. Grading should only reflect a summation of coverage of a range of topics and questions of varying difficulty.

This goes against what happens in pretty much all other subjects. In English, Humanities and the Creative Arts, you can take a piece of work at a given grade and continually give feedback and development points until it is up to A* standard, potentially. That cannot happen in Mathematics presently. The top grade, be it A*/Grade 9 is given because of that aforementioned aggregate of understanding, not because a student can answer all the A*/Grade 9 questions. It is not the central theme of this blog post about why this is the case.

Pre- and post-teaching assessments

I really like Kris Boulton’s proposal of a pre- and post-teaching assessment. By this I mean the following: before covering simultaneous equations, for example, test what students know about the topic (it might be nothing, which is fine); use this to inform what to teach them, and to what level; test what students now know at the end of this teaching block. It’s powerful in the sense that it clearly identifes progress that students have made, it informs short to medium-term planning, and it fits in the mould of topic-level analysis.

I’m tempted to explore this further myself in the future – Kris shared this in March, and it’s on my ‘projects’ list. I think this methodology could be useful for another reason…

The impact of the teacher

Now, say you’re a head of department and you’re looking at the topic-level analysis. It stands out that all of Y10 have significantly underperformed in, say, using scatter graphs. What does this tell you? Well it might be that the question that is quite tricky, but the likelihood is that you’d identified a gap in your teachers’ subject knowledge too. This could also be the case in questions where the emphasis is on problem solving, presenting a case, analysing statistics, etc.

This is the another facet of the power of building a topic-level analysis: it can indicate what professional development you and your team need in terms of their subject knowledge, teaching and learning of problem solving, etc. If your assessments, and the analysis of them, are frequent enough, you can be responding to this pretty quickly, both in terms of coaching your staff and using this to improve the understanding of your students.

Don’t fear data

Reading the Twittersphere you can get a sense of a backlash against the use of data to inform teaching and learning, because people feel that data ignores ‘the story’ behind students. My viewpoint is this: if your assessment is frequent and detailed enough, you’ll build ‘the story’. If you simply rely on a summative score for a whole range topics, you’ll lose your story of that student, of course. However, we have to be careful that ‘the story’ does not become ‘the excuse’. Students ultimately have to take GCSEs and A-levels and it does no good shielding them from that reality. By working a fine level of detail and identifying the gaps in a student’s knowledge early enough, we can provide them with a range of tools and support that will prevent ‘the story’ taking control of the chance of student’s success.

In summary

There are three levels of assessment. Zero stakes assessment such as questioning and the use of mini-whiteboards should be used to ‘steer’ that lesson and any subsequent teaching. Low stakes assessment should give a quick overview of a student’s understanding of a topic, and time should be given to reflect on that assessment to identify areas for development and act accordingly. High stakes assessment, such as half-termly, termly and yearly testing, will obviously be used to judge the progress of students in terms of a summative grade, but most definitely should be used formatively to further develop the big picture. If used correctly, ‘the big picture’ should not just ‘weigh the pig’, but identify teaching and learning opportunities, intervention priorities and CPD needs for you and your staff.

If you want to know more, I suggest you look into the work of Dylan Wiliam, Kris Boulton, David Thomas, Paul Brambrick-Santoyo and Doug Lemov.

Building a Mathematics Department: Roles and Responsibilities, Part 2

“It’s hard enough for a person to keep their own socks pulled up, let alone someone else’s.”

Stephen King, The Stand

In the previous part of this section of Building a Mathematics Department, we started looking at how you should evaluate the current context of your team and using the Four Frames to determine their wants, needs and capabilities. Now that all of that has been done, it’s time to look at how to define the jobs that need doing, and who is going to do them.

So who does what?

Let’s look at a possible way, then, of deciding responsibilities. The way to think is to define what needs to be done by you and your team, and then form responsibilites around those tasks.

As you go through this series you’ll get sense of the scale of what needs undertaking and you can use this to decide what needs to take place. I also find David Allen’s GTD ‘Professional’ trigger list is a good starting point for me. Click here for it – it’s too long to put in this blog post. I find it helps to put aside a significant amount of time for this – a couple of days if needs be. Get everything of yours to hand, every policy, report, spreadsheet, e-mail, book, resource – whatever. Now use the list to decide what tasks need to happen in line with your vision and the requirements of your school.

Next, it’s time to filter.

I’ve heard of the matrix below given many names. Whatever you call it, use it to define how you deal with the tasks you’ve identified above.

Then prioritise on three levels.

Urgent and important tasks are highest priority. These should happen now, if they’re not already happening. You as leader should take ultimate responsibility for them, even if you decide to delegate actions that form part of these tasks. In Mathematics, this category includes lesson planning, monitoring quality of teaching and learning, tracking progress of students, etc.

Second priority are those tasks that are urgent but not important, and important but not urgent. The responsibility for these tasks can be delegated where feasible (i.e. if the capacity and skillset is there). As leader, you should keep an eye on the execution of these tasks, especially if they are important but not urgent, because you might have to take these on yourself if the person you’ve delegated them to doesn’t implement them well enough. Likewise over time the important but not urgent tasks will obviously become more urgent over time, and this is where you have to step in. This category will include the management of resources, curriculum design, managing the learning environment, etc.

Last priority are those tasks that are neither urgent nor important. A lot of leaders might just plain get rid of these tasks. But there is value in allocating these tasks to members of your team who want to show leadership and management potential, NQTs who are adapting well to full-time teaching and could tackle a small project. This might be things like running a trip (depending on how important you think they are), trying out a new piece of technology/software, evaluating some new resources, etc.

What you’ll start to find is that certain tasks overlap or coalesce, and as such you can build a role around that group of tasks. Easy(!).

Step up to the plate

So who takes up these roles then? Well, daft as it might seem, it’s up to you to look at individual staff experience, skills and training, and make that judgement. You might not get it quite right at first but that’s to be marked down to your own experience and development.

One thing I will say is that whilst experience is good, it isn’t everything. There was a time where time served was a solid platform for further responsibility. However the most experienced member of staff isn’t necessarily the best suited to take such a role up, and sometimes those with other qualities and attributes might be a better fit.

I know this is a controversial viewpoint. That said, I do feel some experience and proven impact is vital. Students and staff see past one’s title if dues haven’t been paid or they don’t carry out their duties in line with their claimed skillset.

Moving forward

Once the roles and responsibilities have been defined and delegated, then of course you have to let it happen, but keep an eye on how things are going. I find a weekly review looking at the required tasks that should be happening, along with regular one-to-one meetings with members of staff (fortnightly is ideal, I find) to review their situation is a good fit. But you’ll start to see what’s best for your team over time. What’s very important is that you calendar this monitoring process and you stick to it. Let it slide and it’s incredibly difficult to recover.

I’ll go into more detail regards how you should monitor and track how your team is working and progressing in future posts in the Short Term Planning and Long Term Planning sections. You might, however, have your own methods in this regard, so don’t necessarily cast these to one side just yet!

In essence

Defining roles and responsibilities is tricky. Upon appointment you’ve got to decide to how make your vision work with the team that you’ve got, structure your team around your vision or run with the present situation as is. From there you need to look at your staff through the ‘Four Frames’, understand the structural, human resource, political and symbolic wants and needs of your department. Then determine the work that needs doing, determine the priority of each job, and then piece those jobs together to create the roles needed to deliver on your goals.

Once you’ve got the roles, then allocating them is a matter of matching the work to the available skillset your staff offer. Experience is useful, but it isn’t everything, and you’ve got to carefully judge who does what. Once everything is in place, then you can let things run, all the while keeping a close eye on what’s happening day to day.

Now we’ve got a system for deciding what is done by whom, then it’s time to actually decide what needs doing. So we’ll start with your assessment system, which comes up in the next part of this series.

Thankyou for reading as always.

Building a Mathematics Department: Roles and Responsibilities, Part 1

“In dreams begin responsibilities”

W.B. Yeats

So far in this series we’ve looked at analytical and evaluative processes – auditing one’s department and deciding on a vision for where you want your department to go.

Now we start to look at the more decisive actions. In this post, we start to look at how you start delineating the positions you wish your staff to take, and what that means in terms of the activities they should undertake. I’ll warn you, this is a long one…

I’ll be honest. I find this is one of the hardest tasks a departmental lead has to undertake. The fact of the matter is that it is extremely rare that you get chance to appoint the team you want automatically. Even if you get a clean slate and recruit a completely new team, you’ve then got to develop the ethos and culture you want to see in those staff. In some ways it’s easier to mould a pre-existing staff into how you want them to operate. But that takes time.

Stick, twist or burn

In sporting circles, coaches often have a dilemma upon being appointed to a new team. Do you:

  • Maintain the status quo?
  • Restructure the system of play to fit your team?
  • Restructure the team to fit your ideal system of play?

Let’s look at these in more detail.

Maintaining the status quo should only happen if a) the team is already high-performing; b) there is a great deal of personal responsibility taken up by the staff in the team; c) succession planning is in place; d) the team is open to constant development (which seems to go against the concept of ‘status quo’, but I mean this in terms of a value system rather than a resistance to change).

Restructuring your system of play should only happen if a) the team is skilled and (in the past) successful enough to merit that and b) you are confident enough to maintain what was successful in your system and make it fit within a new context.

So, that leaves us with restructuring the team. Now, there are some caveats to this. The first is that how do you know your system of play will be successful in the context you find yourself in? What makes your system better than the one that is already in place? How are you going to implement this system, and what will be the impact on your staff of these changes?

Whichever direction you take, you are going to find yourself in the position of giving someone something to do. So how does this happen?

Four Frames

In Reframing Organizations, Bolman and Deal talk of there being ‘Four Frames’ that a leader views their world, and therefore through how roles and responsibilities should be defined:

The Four Frames are

  • Structural
  • Human Resource
  • Political
  • Symbolic

Time to dig a little deeper:

The Structural Frame is concerned with the tasks, technology and environment that an organisation is concerned with. In other words, your hierarchical structure should match the ultimate aims that your vision outlines. So if data is really important to the vision you are undertaking, you need to have someone in your team who is responsible for the recording and analysis of data. On the flipside, if you think that something is low priority, then it should not form part of someone’s job description.

The Human Resource Frame is concerned with creating a familial group, respectful of individual attributes, qualities and needs. Your department should be tailored so that staff have the opportunity to get a job done whilst feeling good about it, either because they enjoy it or they appreciate its worth. This is hard, but is easier if your team have contributed to, and therefore buy into your vision. Look at the capabilities and needs of your team: you wouldn’t necessarily put an NQT in charge of say, designing assessments; likewise you wouldn’t necessarily ask your most experienced member of staff to organise the stock cupboard (unless they specifically enjoyed doing it, and it was a good use of their time).

The Political Frame is concerned with creating an arena for competition. This is a controversial frame but in my mind an inevitable function of an environment where ambitious people participate. This frame in the past may not have correlated with the teaching profession, however as schools become more business-like it is increasingly important. When you look at your team, ask this question: where is the power concentrated? Is your team egalitarian, or do certain individuals carry clout? If the former, great. If the latter, you need to break that, especially if they do not fit your team’s vision. Ideally this is done by working with those individuals so power is more fairly distributed. If they hold clout but do not do the job they’ve signed up for, it’s a hard road ahead, but not an impossible one. There is always the unfortunate and ultimate answer, but that should be avoided as much as possible.

Finally, the Symbolic Frame gives meaning and ritual to the roles that individuals undertake. Often staff like formal titles, and the more importance that the title seems to give to an individual then they will play up to it. Not everyone is like this – many just want to do a good job – but all members of a team need to feel they are playing a part in the performance.

The role of a leader is to manage the interplay of these frames and fit your team around that. As I keep saying, this is not an easy task to undertake, and you will make mistakes. But as you keep balancing the four frames and start to come to a consensus of action, then you’ll see success.

In the next bit of this two-part process, we’ll look at how you determine exactly what needs doing, and who does it.


Building a Mathematics Department: Vision

“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”

Yogi Berra

Remember in the previous post in this series, I asked this question:

Is your department serving the needs of the students in your care?

Just as that question is the touchstone for evaluating where you presently are, it should also be the spark to determine where to go.

This ain’t no blue-sky bullsh…

When I started out in the world of work (as an engineer), I would always come across people who would say things like “I don’t want problems, I want solutions…”, “Let’s keep everyone in the loop on this…”, “Just park that for a minute, and we’ll drive that later (yes, really)…”. I know a lot of this language comes out of (ironically) leadership and management training, and is often a substitute for deficiencies in that field.

In the midst of all this, I was often pilloried for not having ‘vision’, not seeing ‘the bigger picture’ and focused too much on the ‘day to day’. I couldn’t see the problem. I just wanted to do a good job, earn a bit of cash and if there was a chance for promotion and the wind was in my favour, then I’d give it a go. Things started to change after a couple of years of being a teacher. I felt I had more to offer, I was plenty accomplished in the classroom and began to develop opinions on how I felt things could be improved in the school I worked in.

I started to coalesce ideas and beliefs around what I felt was right for the students I was responsible for, and wanted to put them into place. Without really thinking about it, I was developing a vision for my own way of working, how it impacted on my students and those staff around me. Often times this would bring me into opposition with other staff, but what could not be argued is the conviction I had in my beliefs and the energy I had in implementing them. Ultimately I realised that to be truly effective in what I wanted to do, I had to have a goal, a purpose – a vision – to direct my energies. To paraphrase my previous post: being without a vision is a driving a train without tracks.

Starting out

You might already have a vision but think it could be more succinct. You might have a set of core ideas that you think need to be boiled down to a central couple of tenets. You might have nothing. Where do you begin? Let’s look at two examples of how to establish a vision – Stephen Covey’s method, and Simon Sinek’s. There are many other ways of creating a vision, but I think these are excellent starting points.

The Covey Method

According to Stephen Covey, you should ‘begin with the end in mind’. In other words, what would you like your legacy to be? Now Covey puts this in the context of the individual thinking of how they’d like to be remembered upon their passing, but it can easily be applicable to your work as a leader. What do you want for students studying Mathematics in 1 year’s time? 2 years? 5? 10? Chances are the further down the line the less likely it is that you will be in post, but that’s not to say that you cannot implement systems, processes and ways of working that will stand the test of time: if they’re effective, they’ll have a long shelf-life, even if they need to be tweaked over time.

Once you’ve established your ‘end’, you can then start to count back and establish time-based milestones that set out the path for you to achieve said ‘end’.

The Sinek Method

In ‘Start With Why’, Simon Sinek suggested that the best businesses establish their vision in three stages:

  • They set out why their business ‘exists’  (their values and purpose)
  • They set out how they are going to fulfil their business (their ways of working)
  • They decide on what what they are going to do to (their actions)

Swap ‘business’ for ‘department’ and you’ve got a vision making system right there. By establishing what you’re about in the first place, that’s the driver for everything you do. Notice the difference between Covey and Sinek’s approach. Covey’s method uses one’s ideal legacy to inform one’s vision; Sinek uses one’s value system to set out a vision. Sinek’s method is better for people who have a clear idea of what they think is the purpose of what they do, which is slightly different from vision in my book, in the sense that for me one’s purpose is the reason one has a career, whereas a vision sets out what they want to achieve through their actions.

The Moral Approach

I think however you go about forming your vision, many leaders of Mathematics departments find themselves dealing with a moral dichotomy:

  • Helping students achieve the best Mathematics qualfications they can, or
  • Helping students become the best Mathematicians they can.

This stems from the results-driven, accountability centred culture that many schools find themselves in. “Get the best results possible and throw the rest to the wind” is a choice that many have to make, and therefore plump for the former goal. However as many schools (and hence departments) are beginning to realise, achieving the former is a by-product of the latter. The latter point is the trigger for long-term growth, whilst the former sates short-term desires. In other words, there is no dichotomy.

Who forms the vision?

So, you’ve got the tools and questions to put a vision together, so now you go off into your office and write it, yeah? No. A vision is nothing without the contribution of everyone following it. A ship needs a captain, but it also needs a team of people to drive and steer that ship. With this in mind, let your staff be part of your bigger picture. I have made this mistake in the past and it’s harder to recruit your team to a journey that they do not have a say in.

In essence

A vision can be formed by establishing where you want to end up, or what drives your business. Remember that ‘the bottom line’ is a benefit of effective work, it should not be the purpose of it – and ultimately your department will have more respect for having this mindset. Oh, and one final point, don’t make your vision too detailed. As Chip and Dan Heath say in Made To Stick:

“If you attempt to say three things, you end up saying nothing.”

Next up – determining roles and responsibilities.

Building a Mathematics Department: Auditing Your Department

“Just as a snake sheds its skin, we must shed our past over and over again.”
Gautama Buddha

State of the Union

When you start out on the journey that is being a Mathematics leader, or when you’re taking stock of the impact you’re playing in your role, it is important to get a handle on how you’ve arrived at your present situation.

There is one question that you ultimately need to answer.

Is your department serving the needs of the students in your care?

If it is, why? If it isn’t, why?

You can establish an answer by collecting responses to a sub-set of questions and investigations.

Questions, questions and more questions


Ultimately it’s all about the students. They are the central purpose of your work and this should always be at the forefront of your efforts as a teacher and leader. Student voice is considered an unworthy concept in many teaching circles, but you’ll be surprised the honesty and value of the opinions students have, as long as they are aware of the serious nature of the process.

What do they think of Mathematics? What do they think of staff? What do they think of lessons? Do they understand what’s being taught? Do they do homework? Are they interested in a career in Mathematics-based subjects? Do they take care in their bookwork. Do they look to improve lesson-to-lesson? Do they revise independently?


Obviously your staff are the fulcrum of your efforts. It is important that as a leader you recognise any inertia that puts a brake on your momentum for change, but likewise it’s even more important that where you see capable staff who can help your achieve your goals quickly, these individuals are given responsibility and opportunity to make impact themselves.

What role does each member of your department play? How long have they been teaching for? What expertise do they have? What is their subject knowledge like? How do they relate to each other? What do their lessons look like? How do they contribute to the running of the department? What do they offer outside of lessons? Do they enjoy their job? Do they like students (not a daft question as it sounds!).


Don’t be so naive to think that parental influence is minimal in the classroom. A teacher’s job is 100% more difficult if parental interest and support is lacking. Sometimes parents can be too interested, but better that than antagonistic. The three-way relationship between parents, students and staff can be a fertile and productive one, when managed correctly.

What do they think of Mathematics? Do they think their students are getting a fair deal? Do they support their children with their Mathematics studies? Would they like to be involved more with their child’s studies?


Data might not provide the complete answer to everything, but it certainly provides the backdrop to a series of (sometimes very enlightening) stories about progress over time, gaps in student knowledge, gaps in teacher pedagogy and more. Of course, data needs to be pitched in context, and balanced between a level of extensive detail and an ease of interpretation.

What are your outcomes like? What does progress look like for each year group and ability range? How do you track student progress? Do you track teacher impact? Does your data reliably predict how students perform at GCSE/A Level? Is your data used to inform short and long term planning?

The Learning Environment

I have seen classrooms that look like a psychedelic trip. I’ve also seen classrooms that look like an accountant’s office. Both these cases had reasonable explanations. But a classroom should clearly betray the subject taught and the department’s passion for student learning. Additionally, when you walk into the Mathematics department, it should feel like you’re doing so.

Do your classrooms look like places of learning? Are displays conducive to learning? How do staff organise their seating layout? What facilities do you have? What ICT is available to the department? Who is responsible for organising the learning environment?


Have a look in your stock cupboards. Answer the questions below, but then be ruthless. I remember uncovering a set of textbooks in one school that were a) older than me and b) likely to disintegrate if I stared too long at them. Just make sure your resources serve your goals. If they’re tatty, graffiti-ed and missing bits, think how your current students are going to consider their worth.

What physical resources do you have? What electronic resources do you have? Who manages them? How old are they? How relevant are they to the curriculum/subject? When was the last time they were used? How do you share resources? 


I have had to work a great deal on my communication skills. Quality communication is the grease that keeps the cogs of your departmental machine working. Good communication strengthens relationships and accelerates the execution of your plans. Bad communication alienates staff and slows processes down.

How do you communicate with your team? How do you collaborate? How often? What is the purpose of your meetings? Who ‘holds sway’ in meetings? How do you share information? 

Professional Development

Whatever state of your current department, never stand still. Staff might tell you they’re happy with their skill set. Learning walks and observations might tell you that teaching and learning looks good, but things stagnate over time if the pedagogical gene pool isn’t refreshed. At all levels, take the time to look at the diet of CPD that is on offer for your staff.

What CPD do staff undertake? Is it in-school? Is it within the local borough/academy chain? When do staff have chance to visit other schools/conferences/exhibitions? What about yourself? What opportunities would staff like to undertake?


A department without a vision is a train without tracks. It’s great to have lots of energy, lots of people on board and the momentum to carry them, but where are they going? A vision establishes the ethos, the ethos establishes the skillsets required. Knowing where you’re headed allows you to determine what you need to get there.

Where do you want your department to be in a year? Two years? Five? Ten (!)? Likewise, what about your students?


With the nature of our vocation and the demands and pressures we face, it’s nigh-on impossible to get the chance to answer all of these questions and formulate a ‘situation report’ in a single go. Instead the skill is to coalesce this over time – as quick as possible, of course, but not so quick that you create a false picture.

If you’re lucky enough to get things like gained time after the darling Y11s depart for the big wide world, then that’s an ideal time. If you are brave enough – and forgive me for saying this – the holidays are also a period where one can take stock and answer a lot of these questions. I’m not saying that when you become a leader school holidays should evaporate into the ether, but it is a point where the ‘bigger picture’ stuff can take centre stage.

In essence

Once you know where you’re truly at, then you can come to a conclusion in relation to that key question:

Is your department serving the needs of the students in your care?

If you conclude in any aspect that the answer is no, then it’s time to act.

The rest of the series is to look at how we can make sure that as much as possible, the answer is always yes.

Next up, establishing a vision and ethos.

Building a Mathematics Department: Introduction

“If you build it, they will come…”

Shoeless Joe Jackson, Field of Dreams

Until the NPQSL and NPQML standards came along recently, there was no guidebook for being a Head of Department, especially not a Head of Mathematics. The closest examples were things like the regularly referenced NCETM’s Excellence in Mathematics Leadership (EiML) and the Suffolk Maths website. Both of these are excellent in their own right, however I feel the EiML site is a little dated now (especially in light of the recent curriculum reforms) and whilst the Suffolk Maths site is comprehensive and has everything a department could need (and more), it doesn’t tell you where to start. I believe there is still a niche in the market.

This series looks to fill that niche. In a way it looks to update the principles of EiML and incorporate the ethos of approaches like Suffolk Maths, but also look at current (and possibly future) practice, both in education and organisational systems.

I’m going to go through the steps I think a Head of Mathematics – or whatever title they have been bestowed – should go through in either starting their role or reviewing their current setup. Similarly those thinking about stepping up to a leadership position in Mathematics might be interested in familiarising themselves with these processes and systems in preparation for taking up the call.

What I’ll be sharing is a combination of my experience, what I think is best practice and at each stage, a set of questions for you to consider when completing each stage of the building process.

So, what do I think are the steps you should take in this process?

1. Auditing your department
2. Establishing a vision and ethos
3. Determining roles and responsibilities for your staff
4. Choosing an assessment model
5. Choosing a curriculum model
6. Selecting and managing resources
7. Designing the learning environment
8. Building connections
9. Planning for the short term (up to a year ahead)
10. Planning for the long term (beyond the first year)

This is not an exhaustive list. It’s designed to be a set of starting points so that a leader can ascertain what decisions to take and actions to put in place. In my opinion, a department leader should constantly review these stages to see if they’re keeping their house in order.

Ultimately, this is a companion to the Art of Leading a Department series, the substance over the previous series’ style. I hope it is as enlightening for as many of you as the previous series was.

If you’re interested in contributing, contact me via the details on my about page – it would be great to hear other teachers’ perspective on how a department should function, and I would be delighted to showcase and reflect on these thoughts over the coming weeks.

So – first up is auditing your department. Enjoy!