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Good Year Heads

May 3, 2010

I have repeatedly seen good heads of department go to the wall. Sidelined, blamed or driven out, because they could not perform miracles. They could not create learning in an environment where learning is unusual. They could not change expectations where management were intent on lowering them.

In the other part of middle management, with year heads, it is different. I have seen good year heads overcome bad managers. I have seen schools transformed in certain year groups by excellent year heads. I have seen year heads do so well that SMT could not miss their achievement.

I’m not convinced I know how they do so well, and I certainly wouldn’t have a clue how to do the job myself. However I have noticed that good year heads have always had these qualities:

Experience. It never ceases to amaze me how, far more than any other managerial position, year heads improve with age. People who rise to being year heads early in their career are usually disastrous. The best ones have often been teaching decades. It’s not a job you can just pick up without having developed a clear vision beforehand. It also helps if it is the position you aspire to, not a stopping point on the road to senior management.

Focus. Good year heads have their own targets, rather than sharing those of the school. Usually these are simple: behaviour, uniform, equipment. I’m always a bit sceptical about the idea that being strict about uniform and equipment improves behaviour generally, but it certainly seems to work within a year team. Making sure that form tutors enforce rules that, perhaps, classroom teachers don’t generally enforce, and supporting them when they do, establishes that form teachers have greater authority over their forms.

Pro-Teacher Sympathies. Good year heads never try to mediate between staff and pupils. They communicate to their students that they are expected to behave, regardless of how they get on with their teacher, and it is not up to teachers to appease them. Obviously, I am biased on this point, but I have seen that it works. Behaviour is better in years with these year heads because students know that if they escalate their behaviour to the point where they involve their year head then they are making an enemy they can’t live with, not bringing in a friend. Appeasers make lousy year heads, and kids actually end up behaving badly in order to be sent to their year head.

Helpfulness with Workload. Pastoral systems create ridiculous amounts of work for tutors. More than any tutor can hope to ever keep on top of. A good year head will reduce unnecessary work to a minimum and encourage tutors to concentrate on keeping their forms ready to learn. They will also take work from tutors, for instance, offering to oversee a child on report, or to contact parents themselves.

Scepticism about Initiatives. If a year head sees themselves as an agent of management, in charge of selling SMT’s daft initiatives to sceptical staff then they are unlikely to be trusted by the people they manage or to create support for their own vision. Year heads who are intent on doing a good job in their year will admit to the year team if something is a waste of time and needn’t have too much effort put into it. This keeps the team focused on the genuine priorities.

Thoroughness. The best year heads follow up everything. I don’t know how they do it but they do.

Now, all these things are what I would want from a year head in general, if just because they make it more pleasant to be a form tutor. But I am not simply explaining my tastes here. I am claiming that, in my experience, these things are not just good in principle, but they actually have visible effects. I have worked in a school where you could go to an assembly for one year group and the kids would be loud, half out of uniform, sat where they like, and unable to keep quiet even when being addressed by senior managers. Then you could go to an assembly for another year group and the students would walk in silently, in single file, wearing their uniforms perfectly. Then they would sit down in their form groups, and wait silently for the assembly to start. The difference would be one year in age, but it would be a different world. I have also dealt with students in the same school where in one year group a child who is asked to behave would reply by saying “you can’t make me, I’m going to my year head” and in another year group a child who is asked to behave would comply immediately if you simply said “if you cannot do what you are told, then I will need to discuss this with your year head”. It is probably worth adding that these year heads who were most feared were also the most loved. It never ceases to amaze me how much the worst kids can be desperate for approval from the same year head who is most keen to hassle them.

Of course, the fact that year heads can make such a difference, more than other middle managers, more than most SMT, perhaps makes it inevitable that many schools have been moving away from having year heads and towards having “mentors”, non-teaching support staff doing  the job of a year head, at a fraction of the wage, and usually doing a far worse job.

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8 comments

  1. Ours are all non-teaching. I wouldn’t say they do a terrible job but they lean far more to the “needs” of the pupil than they do to their teachers’. Because they aren’t teachers themselves I don’t think they fully appreciate the pressure a belligerent uncooperative child puts the class and the teacher under. They seek too much to “understand” and accommodate.


    • I suppose that it’s not possible to “manage upwards” by pointing out that they should consider and understand the needs of pupils, plural?

      The classroom-wide, school-wide need of all pupils to have a calm, non-threatening environment in which to apply themselves to learning.

      Take no notice. I’ll just sip my tea in my corner.


  2. I agree with the majority of this.
    These r indeed the 6 key skills of the effective year head.
    I would throw in some additional desirable qualities too:

    a) charismatic speaker
    b) good negotiator with unreasonable parents
    c) if they are a teacher- good discipline themselves
    d) very efficient at admin

    However I’m not dead set against them being non teachers. Many schools have non teachers in this role because they can react to situations as they happen rather than wait till the end of the day when lessons are over.

    Provided they have been properly trained and dont indulge spoilt brats they can be good.

    I’m aware past teaching experience can be helpful and that having tradidtional year heads allows another promotion route but needs as must in my view.

    I suppose my ideal would be an experienced teacher on a very low timetable (like 5 lessons a week!)


  3. I definitely agree with all these points – good year heads or heads of house are such a blessing. The bad ones; it makes no sense to even attempt to get them to support you at all as it often makes it worse!

    I think I’d agree that a head of year/house on a super reduced time table would be good to have as they could catch more pupils after lesson. Otherwise if something more serious comes up mid day its more difficult to have them intervene.


  4. I found this post absolutely fascinating! I had no idea that a teaching career in the UK was so hierarchical and so structured. I thought the term senior management was reserved for corporate life.I absolutely with you that it is the immediate hierarchy in any organization that has the most impact on the workforce. As usual the teacher training colleges don’t seem to look into the concrete dynamics of how it works! I work in a large lycée in France alongside a hundred or so other teachers. We are organized administratively by a head or deputy head who have absolutely no say in hiring and firing us and we are in fact answerable solely to our inspectors whom we see about once every ten years. There are no intermediary managers. The only promotion possible is to become an inspector or a head … You’ve certainly given me food for thought!


    • As I understand it, teachers in France are usually high academic achievers and getting into the profession is no easy matter. That probably lends itself to professional autonomy and trusting the judgement and professionalism of teachers.

      In Britain, teaching is seen as an appropriate destination for underachieving middle class people. This is for a number of reasons: a history of low pay in the profession; a distrust of intellectuals; political divisions within the country, and the “progressive” belief that subject knowledge is unimportant.

      As a result, our system is based on a bureaucratic model rather than a professional, or vocational, model. Nobody trusts the judgement of teachers, so we have a system that is designed to replace it with regulation and oversight.


  5. Excellent post. As a Head of department I often taught younger colleagues that they had to learn to play HOYs in different ways. Some were there to support teaching, others there to accommodate children and mediate.

    the worst are the non-teachers, they simply set themselves up as the focal point for student complaints about staff.

    Unlike subject leaders HOYs can define their own criteria for success, they have no measurable means of accountability/

    Frequently they are “strong teachers”. This is for various reasons be it charisma or teaching subject, (Drama, Media Studies, boys’ PE), or sheer longevity in the school (the part of the furniture syndrome) often with social links in the community. This means they have no fundamental understanding of the emotional and psychological angst “weak teachers” go though and are emotionally ill-equipped to give support. the worst of these are the ones who want to be the kid’s friends, they frequently bully vulnerable staff.

    Who are to blame? Ultimately SLT. They fail to set out a clear disciplinary structure and because the se HOYs are often “strong personalities” do not challenge them.


  6. You have described my wife-she was, by all accounts, brilliant. Her form tutors loved her. Even the rogues in the year group respected her.
    Her reward? Redundancy because she was what you described-and that was not whet the Head wanted, especially the thinking for herself and swallowing the official line.



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