Being an effective maths subject leader

Thanks to John Dabell for this post on being an effective maths subject leader. John is a teacher with over 20 years teaching experience across all key stages. He has worked as a national in-service provider and is a trained OfSTED inspector. 

WAGOLL…What a good one looks like 

Every teacher will be familiar with this acronym but how does this relate to us as teachers? What does a good one look like when we are talking about maths subject leaders? Are you a WAGOLL or a JAM (Just About Managing)? Whether you are just about managing or whether you are the equivalent of a maths Red Arrow, it’s worth taking a step back as the learning never stops. 

Firing on all cylinders      

If you are a maths subject leader then you will be hyper-aware that your subject is high-stakes and high profile. Maths is a critical and core area of the curriculum and its vital signs need constant monitoring and vigilance which is why you have to have your finger on the pulse to keep it functioning at its best. 

Leading maths requires a sophisticated skill set, nerves of steel and plenty of guile, gumption and gusto. You’re a middle leader but that requires you to lead from the front, sides and rear too. You are the key driver of change. Maths is a high maintenance subject intricately connecting all staff and every pupil and needs attention to detail, TLC, nurturing and empowerment.  The leadership of maths teaching, learning and assessment has a very significant impact on standards. 

In the report ‘Firing on all cylinders’ the ‘think-and-action tank’ lkmco bring together the evidence surrounding what makes effective middle leaders.  Whilst there is no single best recipe, the report states that the broad consensus from Ofsted and academic research says that effective middle leaders:  

1) have a clearly thought through, clearly communicated and ambitious vision 

2) their vision-setting is underpinned by accurate and careful evaluations on areas for development 

3) are both knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their field 

4) encourage exploration and innovation, both in curriculum planning and amongst their team members 

5) are strong leaders and have an ability to confidently delegate tasks as a ‘leading professional’ and build a culture of collegiality, where there is frequent dialogue, sharing professional information and best practice. 

The report adds that the two most important personal characteristics of effective middle leaders are an ability to build strong relationships with team members, and being knowledgeable.

“The data from our case studies suggest that…being professionally informed and being bold, innovative and resourceful – seem to feature more prominently with middle leaders in relatively high performing departments. Alongside strong team management and organisational skills, particularly effective middle leaders engage with research and policy and using this as a basis for driving innovation within their departments.”

If you look at the findings of this report and see yourself then congratulations, you can call yourself effective. However, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t. You might feel like you are firing on just a couple of cylinders, spluttering along, misfiring and not quite getting up to the speeds you want.  The role of subject leader is multi-faceted and the qualities you need to work effectively take time. Not being effective doesn’t make you ineffective, it makes you a work in progress. Leaving no stone unturned is something you need a few years doing and there are a lot of stones. Effective subject leaders don’t get complacent either as they know the qualities they have require constant reflection, updating and improvement. We are all in this together.  


A subject leader for maths has a lot of bases to cover and a lot of boxes to tick and regardless of experience, where do you start? This is where we need to KISS KISS. The first KISS is the well-known ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’ which although less than kindly worded is actually good advice for planning, management and development of maths. But in order to do that you need to deploy the second KISS, which means Keep- Improve- Start- Stop, a useful management technique that helps you ask the right questions for making a difference. Together, as a school, you ask four simple questions:

1. KEEP -  What maths initiatives, strategies and activities are we doing well as a school?

2. IMPROVE  - What are we already doing that could be improved to make our maths provision even more effective, efficient and better?

3. START - What do we need to start doing that we haven't been doing or that other schools are doing and achieving success? 

4. STOP - What do we need to stop doing either because it no longer adds to the global maths vision or is no longer compelling or serviceable?

The KISS process empowers maths subject leaders to focus and refocus their aims on the little things and the big things that are making greatest contribution to the overall maths strategy and vision of the school. Inevitably, the KISS process will feed into a maths audit, be guided by principles of best value and inform the school improvement process whilst supporting strong collaboration and engagement throughout the school.

Maths on Fire

The bottom line of being a maths subject leader is to ask, “What is the impact of the teaching of maths and how does our maths provision measure up?” An effective leader will have a relentless drive to continually improve outcomes and to make sure that maths is ‘on fire’ throughout the school and all children are achieving well. 

Michelin maths provision takes serious commitment, hard work and consistency. We’d all like stars of approval to match our provision and that can be achieved with a clear idea of priorities and keeping things simple whilst being ambitious and never relenting. You have to be a maths sommelier as well as head chef and a cross between Sherlock Holmes, Sir Alan Sugar and Rocky.

Remember, you are not working in a silo as maths is a collective responsibility and a joint enterprise across the school.        



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