The Role of Senior Leaders Part 1: content matters

Having occupied a senior leadership role for six months I am feeling rather more confident about speaking my mind about what good senior leaders ought to be doing (and not doing). I have of course held views about this for quite a long time, but these views are now crystallising into a clear set of points that I think are often lacking at a senior leadership level in schools.

The first of these is an emphasis on the content of lessons.

Let’s take an analogy by way of example. A restaurant that seeks to gain its Michelin star does not focus just on the delivery and presentation of the food (important though this it): it focuses above all else on the quality of the food being provided to its patrons. If the food is of a poor quality (or even an average quality) then no amount of exceptional service and presentation is going to make up for this. The owner, the manager, the head chef: they all have a vested interest in ensuring that the food that turns up on the table is the best they can offer.

Schools in the present are very much like restaurants that focus all on delivery, and very little on content. Indeed, our current inspection regime actively encourages schools to cover up mediocre content with fancy service when the inspector calls. Senior managers need to take a look at their notes from recent lesson observations. What are you commenting on? Behaviour management? Great. Quality of teacher talk? Great. High-quality feedback? Superb! Opportunities for pupils to consciously correct their errors? Give me more!

But how often does a senior manager comment on the quality of the content being taught? How many senior managers walk into a lesson and say ‘this was exactly the right moment to introduce these pupils to the notion of a “civil war”’? How many senior managers observe a teacher and say at the end ‘I think you need to make more use of what these students have learnt in RE about the reformation’? And how many senior managers would walk in and say ‘I think the textbook you are using is too simplistic for Year 8 pupils?’

Questions about the content of what is being taught are vital. Is it sufficiently detailed? Is it structured in a clear and logical way? Does it link to what was taught in the previous lesson? Or the next lesson? Are the concepts and ideas being taught the ones that these pupils really need at this point in their education? These questions are, sadly, far less common in schools than questions about how the content is being delivered.

Good senior leaders in school focus on delivery and presentation – of course they do – but, to my mind, they ought to be focusing as much on the content of what is being taught as on the delivery. Indeed, there is a case for saying that they should focus even more on content than they do on delivery: mediocre content delivered well is far worse than excellent content delivered in a mediocre fashion.

And this sums up one of the fundamental problems with how schools are run at the moment: senior managers obsess about the how of teaching, and they care too little for what is being taught.

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6 Comments on The Role of Senior Leaders Part 1: content matters

  1. Absolutely true. However, in secondary schools, subject specialist knowledge is needed, which head teachers will not usually have.

  2. Tom Burkard // 13 October 2015 at 10:25 // Reply

    One of the best posts I’ve read in ages. And your reply to fish64 is spot on, too: I’m now writing a literacy programme for KS3 Chemistry, a subject which I never studied past secondary school, yet I’m appalled at the chaotic and unstructured syllabus I’m obliged to follow if we are to have any hope of selling books. It’s largely a smorgasbord of vaguely related topics, and kids are expected to retain definitions of scientific terms with only the haziest understanding of what an atom is or how they combine with each other and other atoms. And of course that syllabus has to follow the National Curriculum. The Chemistry teacher I am working with assures me it was even worse before Gove came along.

  3. As Dylan Wiliam said “Curriculum is pedagogy”.

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