Leadership in the Secondary School Science Department

I have found leadership in science departments a fascinating thing. Well, leadership in schools. Maybe it’s just leadership in general, but the majority of my exposure and experience has come in the education setting. I want to consider leadership in Science here, particularly as the Science Department is a slightly unusual beast where it brings three individual departments (Biology, Chemistry and Physics) together as one.

Head of Science out front? (CC Image)

Structures in Science

Schools typically follow one of three structures for middle leadership in science departments. Option One: have a standalone Head of Science and then three individual heads of Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Option Two: have your three individual heads of the sciences and one of those is the Head of Science. Option Three: there is no Head of Science. Curiously, at the most recent cluster group meeting I went to it was almost an equal split between the three options. I deliberately said at the start that schools typically follow these; there are numerous further alternatives, for example having no heads of individual sciences maybe instead with a Head of Science and a Deputy Head of Science.

It would certainly be cheaper if you sacked off the Head of Science, which could be one reason for a certain structure, or that it was not considered essential to the running of the department. Structures maybe also be chosen because of difficulties in recruitment, such as the final route I mentioned where you might not have heads of individual sciences because you may be without colleagues who would be suitable to take on those roles.

It is worth noting at this point that the remainder of this post will be focusing on the top layers of leadership and the more generic, main roles involved. There are many other responsibilities that are utterly essential to the running of the department, but that’s for another day.

Why Option One is the Best

I am writing this with every effort to eliminate bias, but Option One is the way my department operates and how my previous department operated. It is important to recognise how different the role of Head of Science is to being a head of one of the sciences. It takes on an especially strategic guise, often working closely with the school’s senior leadership team, and working with the middle leadership within science to bring about cohesion and some elements of a common vision.

It means that the heads of the individual sciences can spend their time and energy on their subject. For example, the Head of Biology will spend their time ensuring their department is at the top of their game when it comes to biology teaching and biology subject knowledge. It also means they have time to think about each individual student in their Biology lessons and more quickly identify and tackle any issues. They needn’t become overly involved in paperwork, or if they do need to complete something then the majority could be tackled initially by the Head of Science and then any input from the Head of Biology takes far less time. That can be quite liberating.

It also gives the heads of each science somewhere to escalate to if needed, before having to venture up to the senior leadership team. Usually, of course, most interventions or issues are tackled within the subject team but having an extra layer can bring about benefits of having an additional layer whether it’s in tackling some behavioural issues or developing an understanding of a students’ needs in some aspect of their learning.

Something often missed, because the structures are different to a standard department, is that there needs to be cohesion between the three individual sciences. In the vast majority of cases, students will be studying all three sciences until aged 16 and given the crossover in content and in examination style, having a level of consistency in our expectations of the students, how we guide them, and in some ways how we teach (such as the terminology and language used), can be quite important. Without a Head of Science that becomes harder.

Alongside that, supporting students in their decisions or determining departmental policy about Double Science or the separate sciences can be taken on by the Head of Science without needing to use much time of the individual heads of sciences. It can also mean decisions can be made more easily rather than having to reach some kind of consensus amongst three equals, which may be tricky if an issue is particularly contentious.

It does mean that the Head of Science is a little detached from some of the day-to-day aspects of running a subject. I am lucky that my physics department is constantly talking and evolving and debating because otherwise I would find it tricky not to have some thought and input on the development of the subject. As a Head of Physics, you get the joys of building and developing your programme of study and having the curriculum and assessment framework that you want. Choosing the areas of Key Stage 3 that you think is most important in getting them to love the subject, and building a Key Stage 4 that really hits the spot for giving the students every chance of success. As a Head of Science, you may well help build a common vision amongst the sciences but you don’t spend much of your time in the nitty gritty of what is an especially fun and rewarding aspect of subject leadership.

What does the Head of Science do?

Of course, as Head of Science you could dictate that all three sciences follow an identical approach. You could spend lots of your time monitoring to ensure all three departments are following the specific ways that you think are the best. If you came into a job and you had identified quickly that there were serious shortcomings, this might be something you have to do for a period of time. However, when things are going well there is not the need to become an enforcer of unnecessary policy. It is fine to share a vision between you all as Head of Science and the heads of the sciences, but in my opinion it is not positive to push for conformity from the top on the majority of areas. It is too often poorly understood that the three sciences are quite different: if you taught them and assessed them all in the same way, that would not be the most effective.

The Head of Science has the role, along with the talented colleagues within the department and across the school, to ensure the best approaches to teaching and to curriculum and assessment development are considered, discussed and implemented. This can be done in a wonderfully collaborative way, and in doing so it removes the waste of so much professional time that can be soaked up in monitoring and quality assuring.

The Head of Science is there to enable the heads of the individual sciences to enjoy diving deep in their subjects and giving them the time and space to be leading their departments to greatness. There will be challenging moments where more direct approaches are needed (believe me, I’ve seen most of them) and this does not necessarily follow the lovely fluffy picture I am painting. For me, though, all actions of a Head of Science ought to happen with that first sentence of this paragraph being the job description. Get that right, and you are a long way along the right path.

5 Replies to “Leadership in the Secondary School Science Department”

  1. Bristol Biologist says:

    I work in a small department of 4 full time and 2 part time teachers. Due to our small number we only have a Head of Science, who is a physicist, and no individual heads of biology, chemistry and physics. As the only biology specialist in the department, I am frequently asked to carry out tasks such as preparation of exam papers, reviewing examiners reports, organising controlled assessments etc because the Head of Science is not a biologist. What’s your view on this as a Head of Science? Do you think the Head of Science should be prepared to step out of their specialism and have an overview of all three subjects, or are they right to delegate to an albeit experienced classroom teacher with no TLR? Thanks for your blog.

  2. I can’t believe I didn’t mention department size in my post – that’s another huge factor in how they run.

    My immediate thought is that it makes a lot of sense to delegate much of that to the specialist in the department, but that really it ought to be recognise with some kind of job title given you’ll fulfil a number of aspects of the role of Head of Biology. Alternatively, you’d surely be within your rights to say that the role of a teacher of any subject is to plan, teach, assess and monitor students and to provide support to developing department within reason. I imagine that the culture throughout the department/school though is one of collaboration on more than a typical teacher in a bigger school/department? And without that, the school would struggle without employing additional staff or giving additional TLRs (and time, and then employing more staff!)

    I think a non-specialist Head of Science ought to be able to prepare exam papers up to KS4, and the planning and administration of controlled assessments for all years though. I’d get your feedback on the Bio papers before printing, and would work with you on timings etc for controlled assessments. I’m saying all this without knowing context etc, but that’s my instinct!

  3. Bristol Biologist says:

    Thank you for your reply Drew. It is helpful to hear your perspective both in your blog and your reply. On the one hand I am pleased to have the autonomy to decide on exam questions etc. myself but I have also struggled with workload this year and have had moments of thinking ‘that’s not my job’. There’s also the issue of accountability when tasks have been delegated and who is ultimately responsible if things aren’t done quite the way they were wanted. Once again thanks for your helpful response.

  4. SassyScientist says:

    Hi Drew,
    I really loved reading your post on the different types of leadership structures in departments. You wrote about how you thought Option One is the best structure and i can definitely see why with the valid reasons you used to back up your point.
    But I’m just wondering if schools who operate with Options Two and Three also work just as well as Option One… I know many different schools that don’t use Option One but still communicate and work well together as a unit. Would love if you could reply back and express the positives of using the other options in schools. Thanks!

  5. Dorset Chem teacher says:

    Last year our head of biology left and we struggled to find a replacement as no one in the department wanted the job and the one person who did apply wasn’t yet suitable for the role. We have had one year of our current model which is 2 heads of science with the roles split across the three sciences. These two were the former head of chem and Phys. There is also a combined science coordinator. We spoke to our head about this not being enough (we have a team of 18 staff, some full some part time). We have found this year we are stretching ourselves too thin and biologists are getting frustrated with not having a subject specialist to go to. Any advice on a structure that could work without a head of biology

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