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Monitoring Your Subject 101

Updated: Jul 15, 2022

This blog post is part of an ongoing series on subject leadership in the primary school. You can read the rest of the blog posts here: Subject Leadership In Primary Schools Blog Archive

Recently I blogged about Why Subject Leadership Training Is A Top Priority. A large section of the training I provide is about how to quality assure the teaching and learning of a subject. Here's a summary of my advice to subject leaders with regards to monitoring their subject:

Many new middle leaders are effectively thrown in at the deep end and are expected, at least until they are given training, to monitor and evaluate their subject. Often the only experience of monitoring and evaluating that these leaders have is what has been done to them. You might be reading this and recognising leaders in your school who are in this position, or you may even be identifying with this yourself.

How to carry out monitoring and evaluation (M&E) is a huge and often contentious issue, and therefore it is one that middle leaders will need training on. As I've been delivering training, particularly to subject leaders, I've found that the questions most asked are around this very thing.

This year, M&E is something that I've covered as part of a training session but next year it will form a much longer part of my training. To try to provide some nutshell clarity I often share the following pointers for effective M&E:

Be clear about:

What you are looking for - don't just go in looking for anything and everything, choose a focus and be disciplined in looking for it.

Why you are looking for it - have a reason for what you are doing. Sometimes as middle leaders we know we should monitor and evaluate so we spend time doing it, but with little purpose.

How and where you will look for it - decide where you might find the evidence of what you are looking for. Some monitoring exercises will not give you the information you need.

When you will look for it - make sure the subject you are going to see is actually being taught at the time it says on the timetable. Some lessons are moveable feast and lots of time and resources can be wasted turning up only to find the lesson you want to see isn't being taught.

Who will provide the information you need - who might you speak to? Children? Teachers? Parents? Other leaders who have had opportunities to see what's going on in classrooms? When speaking to others you will need to think very carefully about the questions you ask to ensure that they really fit your what and why.

The temptation is to believe that doing some drop-ins or looking at children's work will tell you everything you need to know. But that simply isn't the case. Here are some pointers for best practice:

•No single form of M&E can tell you everything

•The best you can get from M&E is clues which help you to form an impression

•Use those clues to follow lines of enquiry and use your impressions to provoke discussion

•Come to conclusions slowly

M&E can go really wrong, often feeling judgemental rather than developmental. In the case of subject leaders who are simply trying to gain information for themselves so that they better understand what's happening in their subject, the intention may not even be for it to be developmental - just an information-gathering exercise.

To attempt to avoid there being negative consequences to your M&E, think about the following:

Don't rely heavily one on source of information - one source might give you clues and impressions, but you can weigh these up by looking at other sources to get an idea of whether or not your impression is correct.

Make sure you have good enough subject expertise - knowing the content of your subject well, and the best pedagogical approaches for teaching it, will help you to be much more perceptive when carrying out monitoring and evaluation. Developing your own expertise will allow you to be more supportive if you do give feedback to staff about your findings.

Ask the right questions - when you are deciding on your why, you are beginning to ask questions, and then as you carry out any M&E exercises, you are constantly asking questions. Spend time thinking carefully about the questions you ask yourself and others - asking the wrong questions will give you the wrong answers.

Don't ignore additional factors - because we go into M&E exercises with a focus - or even an agenda - we can often be blind to what else is going on, and we don't take all that is necessary into account. For example, we need to be sensitive to the context of the class when observing - a perceived problem with teaching might actually be a behaviour management issue, and with development of behaviour management techniques the teacher in question may have no problems teaching the subject.

M&E can be done for M&E’s sake and can be very superficial - I left this until last as it is the loudest warning I have. M&E is easy to do but incredibly tricky to do well. By this I mean that it is simple to go through the motions - visit lessons, flick through books, ask children questions and make a note of their answers - but this does not mean that you are doing it well. Following the first 5 steps to gaining clarity for yourself as a leader will help you on the way to doing it well, but you must always be ready to admit that you might be doing it just because it's the done thing.

If you would like Aidan to work with you to develop leaders and leadership in your school or trust, visit or use the contact details on this page to get in touch.

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