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.
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.