Subject leadership in Primary Schools

Paul Main

How can Primary Schools approach effective subject leadership?

What is subject leadership in Primary Schools?

How might primary Practitioners ensure that all the pupils in their schools have access to an excellent academic curriculum experience while also developing quality professional and expertise of their staff? The primary school curriculum presents a chance for both subject leaders and learners. The day-to-day observations of the primary teacher will confirm that children are naturally curious about the world. Some would even contend that a core aim of the curriculum, pedagogically enacted by the teacher is to help them find pedagogical content knowledge, skills, and understanding that channel their curiosity and take them beyond their day-to-day experiences (Young et al., 2014). However, the curriculum is not only an opportunity for the learners of our schools. With its broad array of subjects, the curriculum offers an opportunity for school leaders of all experience and subject leadership levels to engage in high-quality teaching collaboratively.

What are the opportunities in subject leadership?

  • It can give learners the chance to be immersed and initiated into the rich traditions of history, geography, music, and other subjects,
  • It can provide the chance for school leaders (Subject specialist of all levels of experience within the school) to contribute to a mutual, collaborative goal and, in turn, develop their expertise for the sake of school improvement.

However, it is wise to note that there is absolutely no assurance that there will be a balance of teachers with the drive and passion for offering quality teaching or those with enough expertise to accomplish it within a staff body of primary school teachers.

This is evident in the Carter Review (DfE Department for Education - a ministerial department responsible... More, 2015) stated that teachers fresh from college entering the teaching profession might not necessarily have the same knowledge base (due in part to differences in their teacher training and teaching resource). Problems for subject leaders are likely to be encountered by those that may lack the required expertise in a specific curriculum area and have never had an opportunity to develop themselves a step further. It then follows that if there is a lack of knowledge among subject leaders or knowledge organizers in primary school, it might be very tough for the curriculum of that subject to be developed successfully. Therefore, primary school leaders should consider how they will ensure that the curriculum intent is designed effectively to provide for their pupils' needs while also developing their staff's subject knowledge and expertise.

Design and technology subject progression
Design and technology subject progression

Allocating the leadership of the primary curriculum

The first thing to ask ourselves is what can be done about it. First and foremost, to answer the question is to see the subject specialist of the curriculum as a collaborative task, where all the teaching staff is empowered to be part of the growth process. A significant difference ought to be made between formal leadership positions and the distribution of leadership within the primary school. Senior leadership (synonymous with traditional leadership) has a significant but indirect effect on student outcomes in schools (Rhodes and Brundrett, 2010).

Class teachers have the most contact with the pupils, and success highly depends on them delivering curriculum expectations. However, senior leaders are integral to the success of their pupils too. The senior leaders may set the strategic vision and craft goals for their staff to deliver high-quality instruction of the intended curriculum, but it is the teacher who provides the curriculum. The teacher makes sense of it pedagogically and inspires students to take up their opportunities. Therefore, they should have the agency to make them their own (Hargreaves and O'Connor, 2018).

Therefore, it is integral that senior leaders distribute their leadership to ensure that all of their teaching staff are being developed to reach their full potential. If the subject leadership wants to ensure that the curriculum is collaboratively developed, as Harris (2004) notes: - The job of those in formal leadership positions should hold the pieces of the organization together in a productive relationship… distributing leadership equates with maximizing the human capacity within the organization' (p.g.14)

The central premise of this claim is that formal responsibilities or management structures do not bind that leadership; leadership ought to be dispersed, collective, collaborative, and shared. Therefore, primary school teachers should hold discussions with curriculum specialists and be responsible for its development, so everyone can make a meaningful contribution to the intended curriculum.

When the subject leadership role of the curriculum is distributed, those who hold formal senior leadership positions are advised to take on the role of empowering to increase the teachers' knowledge, coaching hence developing leaders of subjects, who become the designated expert in their curriculum areas in their institution. Sometimes formal senior leadership position that distributes leadership may set overarching goals and vision, and standards of learning, but, in due course, if their leadership is distributed, they will expect teachers and other leaders to cultivate their action plans and collaborate with them colleagues concerning critical skills.

Use the thinking framework to help staff develop learning outcomes
Use the thinking framework to help staff develop learning outcomes


Building in formative assessment of subjects

At Structural Learning, we have been helping primary schools develop formative assessment opportunities using a range of frameworks and questioning strategies. The question that really drives our interest in formative assessment is 'do they really understand?'. We are trying to develop assessment processes that enable a teaching team to decide how well a child understands a particular topic. Primary children are used to quickfire question and answer sessions but we are trying to develop deeper assessment judgements that go beyond simple recall of facts.

The Universal Thinking Framework was originally created to design for curriculum progression. Using the learning actions, teachers could design activities for children that broke down complex tasks into bite-size chunks. Primary children are able to understand what cross-curricular skills they need to implement in order to achieve a particular task. We then shifted our focus to using the framework for devising assessment judgements. Using a simple template, senior leadership teams were able to create formative assessment activities that made sure curriculum expectations were being met (and exceeded!).

The block building methodology has certainly had a significant school impact. Asking a child to 'build what they know' transforms dry assessment processes into an engaging formative assessment activity. Watching children construct something that represents their understanding gives educators a rich assessment of their true knowledge. The national curriculum is littered with opportunities to break down and reconstruct concepts and schemas. Primary age children love building sentences, timelines and hierarchies. As the children talk, they are giving primary teachers opportunities to check for understanding. This enables the class teacher to 'listen in' to the learning conversation. We have numerous examples of children building for learning on our dedicated webpage. If a school setting can allow for this sort of learning activity, then checking pupil progress can be seamlessly integrated into the learning process.

Examples of assessment include asking children to vocalise their understanding using premade question stems. This type of formative assessment activity encourages children to engage in higher-order thinking and to also find the right words that they eventually transform into the written word. Assessment is an essential aspect of teaching but it's not always clear how to seamlessly integrate it into classrooms.

Subject leader roles and responsibilities

Subject leaders can be empowered by senior leaders to become experts in their areas. Although they would not consider themselves 'experts' before taking on their respective roles, they should understand how this can be done and what effective subject leadership might look like if it is accomplished.

This is a list of three principles, supported by research but drawn from my own experience, that I would advise all senior leaders to be aware of and, at the same time, all subject leaders should adopt.

Leadership principle 1:

Understanding of the school context and community

Subject leaders' role needs two types of data:

  • Data that helps to understand deficits
  • Data that helps to understand the school (institution) community.

They are both equally important. The curriculum is a tool to substitute equality of opportunity. In order to be used to its maximum potential, it must be rooted in the pupils who attend the school. It could be a high proportion of SEN, Pupil Premium Additional funding for publicly funded schools in England to... More or low literacy rates, the subject leader role should be accountable for and considered in the development of the subject's curriculum. Where there's a need, each subject should think about how it meets this and takes the standards of learning of the pupils beyond their everyday-to-day experiences. In addition to this, subject leaders must celebrate the wealth of understanding about the school (learning institution)community in their subjects while also offering alternative perspectives on basic skills to deepen pupils' learning.

Action: Subject leaders should start off with an understanding of their institutions' community by creating staff, pupil, parent, and governor surveys and audits related to their subjects in order to gather as much 'data' as they can.


Leadership principle 2:

A focus on education and the commitment to ongoing professional development in the subject within a supportive network. Subject leadership skills should be engaged in developing an understanding of best practices in their subject across the nation. Every subject shares key decisions of good practice; however, there are essential distinctions between each that must be considered keenly. Within every subject, there are knowledge, concepts, and skills. Subject leaders need inset consultancy to help them understand what these look like in every year group for their respective subject. Moreover, they need to be able to support teachers in a strategic direction of the school articulate and how they work together. They should also be shown which ones should be taught first and how these three aspects of the subject fit together pedagogically.

Once the subject leader has understood the concepts of the various subject in terms of skills and knowledge, it is essential to map this out into a clear progression of knowledge and skills. There are many ways that this can be achieved; not the particular document itself that is essential, but the understanding that teachers have -they have a reputation for innovation. In our context, we use knowledge organizers for knowledge progression: which we have checked among all year groups to ensure that all of the facts and vocabularies are fully progressive. It also ensures that the skills document is embedded within a proper understanding of what makes a good scientist for that particular year group.


Action:  Checking out the recommendation engine, the Historical Association, the Geographical Association, and the D&T Association are some excellent subject associations that subject leaders should join. These associations provide training and support for primary practitioners.


Graphic organisers are useful for formative assessment
Graphic organisers are useful for formative assessment

Leadership principle 3:

In commitment to developing a solid subject leadership, you need a professional partner and management skillset.

To acquire a successful track record, Subject leaders ought to be willing to develop and endorse models of change and facilitate skills and coaching techniques in a limited time. If they are adequately empowered to be fully responsible for their curriculum area, and they are met with respect and trust, the subject leader sharing their understanding of the core subject with their colleagues and helping others on how to teach their core subject better should be a core aim. If the senior leaders distribute their leadership of the curriculum to the primary practitioners, they should see themselves as those who develop the leaders at all relevant levels in their school: the subject leadership provides a good opportunity to do this.


Action: the subject associations offer exceptional training courses that might advance the development of subject leadership and primary curriculum.


Reaching a conclusion about subject leadership

It is wise to consider the consequences of distributed leadership in the programs of study and these principles in a local authority school or a trust. Within a combined framework, the possibilities for curriculum programs' subject expertise and development in the primary phase become achievable, and this is especially pertinent within multi-academy trusts or local authority meetings of subject leaders. Curriculum development then becomes a shared collaborative goal of primary practitioners who are committed in their programs of study to improve the teaching of their respective subjects. 

The foremost opportunity that the distribution of curriculum leadership presents for primary teachers is to develop themselves as specialists experts in curriculum areas. This is the first step on the road to primary subject expertise. Developing straightforward formative assessment opportunities within each subject area is also a critical part of the process. Assessment systems don't have to be laborious, creative methods of finding out what students know will help your staff reach accurate assessment judgements that meet the needs of all your pupils.

Key takeaways

  • Curriculum design is a complex process that requires collaboration across multiple stakeholders.
  • Primary school leaders need to understand the importance of having a well-developed curriculum, which is aligned to the national curriculum framework.


Department for EducationThe ministerial department responsible for children’s serv... More (DfE) (2015) The Carter Review of Initial Teacher Training Abbreviated to ITT, the period of academic study and time in... More (ITTInitial teacher training - the period of academic study and ... More). London: Department for Education.

Hargreaves A and O’Connor MT (2018) Collaborative Professionalism: When Teaching Together Means Learning For All. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Harris A (2004) Distributed leadership and school improvement. Leading or misleading? Educational Management Administration and Leadership 32(1): 11–24.

OfstedThe Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services... More (2019) The education inspection framework. Available at: (accessed 23 March 2020).

Rhodes CP and Brundrett M (2010) Leadership for learning. In: Bell T, Bell L and Middleton D (eds) The Principles of Educational Leadership and Management. London: SAGE, pp. 153–175.

Young M, Lambert D, Roberts C et al. (2014) Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice. London: Bloomsbury.