Subject development tasks for subject leaders and their teams, to help ensure successful sharing and implementation of a subject vision

William Blake wrote that ‘Vision or Imagination is a Representation of what Eternally Exists. Really & Unchangeably.’ (Notes, 1810). It is your challenge, as a leader of learning and teaching, to make the vision real. The implementation of the vision is often presented as a key feature of leadership. It is worth considering whether it is also considered a key feature of management because the two terms – management and leadership – do not describe two groups of people: the leaders manage and the managers, hopefully, lead.

It is worth adding a word of caution here. Visions can be worthless if they are not accompanied by action. A common question asked by inspectors is: what is the school’s mission statement? In schools where the mission statement is no more than a collection of words on a wall plaque, there is no shared understanding and the so-called vision is worthless because it does not drive the more detailed policy-writing and consequent actions of the school. Where a vision is shared, though, the school development plan can prioritise the school’s activities in the political framework.

Individual task: Influences on your vision of the subject
Write down the names of three individuals whom you admire connected to your subject. These might be famous people like athletes or scientists but they might also be people pertinent to your own life – such as a really inspirational teacher or a relative connected to the subject. Now for each one write down what it is that they represent about the subject that appeals to you. This will help you to articulate what the subject really means to you and lay the foundations for a more detailed elaboration of your ideas in the vision for the subject as you develop it with your team (see below).

Embracing an understanding of the subject
Senior management will be required to write the school development plan and the post-Ofsted action plan. Of these, the post-Ofsted action plan is the one that is most obviously required for an external audience. All schools are required to produce an action plan after an Ofsted inspection. The purpose of this is intended to be the raising of achievement in the areas for development highlighted in the report. Although a variety of things will be highlighted in the report as areas for improvement, planners should concentrate on linking their plans for improvement to the areas of teaching and learning. Teams need to subscribe to the vision and this is an aspect of effective departments which has been repeatedly identified in research (Harris, 1999 etc).

This vision is said to embrace an understanding of the subject and what constitutes good teaching and learning of that subject; the vision is shared and debated among members of the team and the vision has a very real impact on how teaching and learning are organised in the departments. The corollary is that a lack of vision, it is argued, is a defining feature of ineffective departments and schools.

The process of writing the whole-school development plan is probably self-explanatory. Planners (including the senior management team and other members of staff) will review the existing development plan and then identify the school’s strengths and weaknesses with reference to the Ofsted report. They then set a timetable and then ensure that all staff are aware of their roles in its implementation. Subject leaders should expect to have an input into but not write the action plan. Where possible, it is important that subject leaders have some input into the school development plan because it will have a major impact on the content and tone of all the subject team’s policies. The school development plan will, by its very nature, comply with national policy initiatives and the local authority’s education development plan.

Research (MacGilchrist et al, 1995) shows that effective schools sustain collaborative cultures where planning is shared. An audit allows members of staff to assess where the school is at the present time in order to plan where the school will be in one, five or 10 years’ time.

It is worth stating here that all of these aspects of policy and vision appear to be very simple in the abstract. The nature of the real life of schools, however, means that in reality the subject leader exists in a messy mix of teaching, assessing, bureaucracy and team-leading, and subject policies will have to be created in this context.

Team task: The team’s vision

  • Write four statements about what your vision of the subject is.
  • Now arrange the statements in descending order.
  • Eliminate the bottom two.
  • Now join up with everybody else’s statements.
  • Go through the same process again.
  • Choose the top three statements.
  • Finally write a paragraph that conceptualises the three statements.

Realistic and rigorous analysis
As Lortie (1975) has shown us, teachers constantly struggle to retain clarity in the face of several competing and contradictory constraints (or what he calls ‘presses’). For example teachers’ working days are defined by hundreds, if not several thousands, of interactions with students, but this is coupled with relative isolation from other adults. This is compounded for those teachers who also have to carry out a management role.

One way subject leaders can look clearly at the substance of what is going on in their subject areas, without the distraction of daily events is by using the SWOT analysis technique. By drawing up a grid of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) the subject leader can look clearly at the way that the subject is being taught. It is important to be as realistic as possible when completing a SWOT analysis and also to be rigorous and base judgments on hard evidence rather than impressions. This minimises the potential for future disagreement.

Team task: Turning the vision into policy
Use the headings and questions below as a starting-point for a team discussion on how policy can reflect the vision for the subject. You may want to use large sheets of paper to write down the ideas that are generated.

  • Why are we doing what we are doing?
  • What would we fight to retain about our subject teaching if it came under threat?
  • Where are we going?
  • What developments would we implement if time and money were no object?
  • What needs to change?

The key point for you as a subject leader is not to deny team members’ emotional responses to change when you present them with the need for a new policy or a change of policy. Their feelings will be complicated and deep-seated and therefore very important. You will dismiss their responses at your peril. The initial negative responses to change must not only be acknowledged by the subject leader but time should be put aside to listen to these ideas. It is important to remember that whether the change is a response to an initiative imposed by government or by senior management, or whether the change has been initiated by the subject leader, the fact is that the subject leader will have had time to assimilate and consider the need for the change long before it is presented to the team. He or she will have had time to deal with the uncomfortable feelings that beset other members of the team well before they hear about many of the new ideas. Too many subject leaders do not acknowledge their own mixed responses to change and forget the time necessary to come to terms with change.

Once listened to, people tend to become more optimistic and supportive of the change process. This can only happen, though, if they feel that they have genuinely been consulted. A consultation that only pays lip service to listening to other people’s ideas is not only a waste of time but it can also be negative and destructive as team members combine feelings of resentment with their already negative response to the ideas of change.

People adapt to change in various ways and although it is somewhat simplistic, it is helpful to think about these reactions more as a cycle or a tide than a relentless upward trajectory. The initial inquisitiveness will often be followed by denial and more systematic refusal to comply. Often these negative responses must be traversed before a team can genuinely adopt a new idea and enjoy implementing it. Ideally, you should offer support for the team members at each stage as they occur but remember that the human response to change is highly complex.


  • Blake, William (1810) Notes on ‘A Vision of the Last Judgment’, for the second edition of A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures.
  • MacGilchrist, B, Mortimore, P, Savage, J, Beresford, C (1995) Planning Matters: The impact of development planning in primary schools. Paul Chapman
  • Harris, A (1999) Effective Subject Leadership in Secondary Schools: A handbook of staff development activities. David Fulton
  • Lortie, D (1975) School Teacher: A Sociological Study. University of Chicago Press

This e-bulletin issue was first published in July 2010

About the author: Elizabeth Holt has taught, researched and led in a range of educational contexts in schools and higher education