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School Department Head

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The department head of a school is responsible for leading the development of a specific subject area, and for managing the teaching staff and financial resources allocated to them under their department.

The head of a department at a school is given a particular subject as an area of responsibility, and it is their charge to raise the standards attained by pupils within that subject area. The department head seeks to raise overall standards of education by enhancing the quality and consistency of the teaching delivered by teachers under their supervision. The head of department ensures that teachers and support staff are adequately equipped with the technology and materials they require to deliver the curriculum effectively, and are accountable directly to the head teacher.


From September 2009, the starting salary for a newly qualified teacher is £21,102, or £26,000 for a position in inner London (source: Training and Development Agency for Schools). The average salary for a head of department in the UK last year was £42,447 (source: Barclays Finance), giving a possible range of salary from £29,000 to £64,000, depending on school location and candidate experience. For the 2010 data round, the anticipated average salary for a head of department in the UK should be around £50,418 (source: Barclays Finance).


  • Devising the Long Term and Medium Term Plans for various assessment grades (GSCE, A-level, AS-level, BTEC, foundation degree).
  • Monitoring the effectiveness of teaching and pupil learning of each qualification, via continued assessment methods and subordinate teacher feedback.
  • Providing support and CPD (Continuing Professional Development) opportunities for staff.
  • Monitoring data and progression, and acting upon the results by providing extra support for students when required.
  • Promoting personalisation through trips and enrichment activities, clubs and events.


Formal qualifications are necessary for any teaching role. To begin with, the candidate must have achieved good enough A-level results to stake a place at university. The A-level subjects studied are often indicative of eventual subject specialisations within which the candidate will be teaching, although it is by no means necessary. A formal, recognised university degree is essential to teach.


  • Strong organisational skills are essential, as the head of a department has not only to manage their own time effectively, but they are also ultimately responsible for the teachers who fall under their department.
  • Dedication to the end goal of delivering exceptional teaching is essential, and this is recognised even before the vocation begins, as the A-level and subsequent university paths demand a lot of effort and time.
  • Patience is incredibly important because there can be bureaucratic barriers to day-to-day tasks, and the candidate is expected to show empathy towards both staff and pupils.
  • Willing to go the ‘extra mile’. This covers a multitude of actions, and the hours often extend well beyond class time, with many tasks being completed at home.
  • Flexibility to change an ongoing, structured plan, and to tailor one’s approach to the current demands of the curriculum and OFSTED guidelines.

Working Conditions

A school can be an immensely challenging environment, made more difficult by the fact that no two pupils are the same. On top of the challenges that classroom teachers must overcome, the department head must also manage wholescale department planning and adapt processes to meet the demands of ever-toughening curriculum constraints.

There have been notable cases in the press of teachers who have suffered persecution, threats and physical abuse, but cases are rare, and generally a school is considered a non-hazardous environment in terms of general health and safety. Stress associated with carrying out the role effectively can be immense, though. Moving from classroom teaching to a department head role brings significant increases in stress brought about by a need to manage others, on top of a tough personal schedule of teaching.


Being the head of a department is seen as the next logical step from being a class teacher, although many teachers elect not to apply for department head roles because they do not want the extra stress of managing others and handling bureaucratic limitations. Others see the job of department head as being an essential stepping stone on the way to the ultimate goal of becoming a head teacher. Rules vary from school to school, but teachers will usually have at least four years’ experience as classroom teachers before being considered for a HOD job.

Also known as…

  • Department head of a school
  • Head of department
  • School department leader
  • School department head teacher

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What’s it really like?

Louise Harris-Ayre is head of the media department at Chase Terrace Technology College, Staffordshire

What made you decide to choose to get into this sort of career?

I studied English and Education Studies at university, so a PGCE in Secondary Education was the natural progression. It was always my intention to work at a managerial level (possibly at County level) but I knew I needed to gain classroom experience. Quite early in my NQT year, I became eager to take on more responsibility: firstly a curriculum area, then the leadership of other staff followed naturally.

Do you have a standard day or a standard type of `exercise’?

Being a teacher, no one day is the same. The main ‘exercise’ comes beforehand, making sure lessons are planned, work is marked and I am prepared for each and every class. In terms of leadership the ‘exercise’ I carry out is setting clear deadlines for staff at the start of each half term so they are aware of when students have to complete assessments, hand work in and then submit the students’ marks to me so that the students’ progress can be monitored.

What is the most common type of problem you must attend to?

There is no one main problem; it depends on the class, the experience of the teacher and the level at which the students are working. For example, a less experienced member of staff may need support with the content of the specification or area of study, whereas another more experienced member of staff may have a particularly problematic class which lacks motivation. Therefore, it is difficult to pigeon-hole one main type of problem.

What do you like most about the job?

Setting-up new courses and witnessing firstly the interest and up-take, and then the progression from the planning of the course to the full teaching. The evaluation at the end of the year is also enjoyable as it enables aspects to be removed or tweaked for further improvement and enjoyment.

What do you like least about the job?

The lack of time to fully plan, monitor and lead a small department. As I am an English teacher, I have to juggle the teaching of my classes in English and Media, as well as leading, and monitoring 4 different Media courses (over 100 students and 6 staff). There is definitely limited time and this is the most frustrating part of the job.

What about academic requirements? Any formal demands, eg A Levels?

I personally have A Levels in English Language, Geography, Environmental Science and General Studies, and a BA (Hons) in English & Education Studies. I also have a PGCE in Secondary English and an MA in Creative and Critical Practice in Educational Settings (to be completed in January 2011).

Do you need to major in the subject you will eventually teach?

Most people just study the subject they want to teach. To be honest, a lot of teachers don’t even have a degree in the subject they teach (although it helps obviously)! Over the years, I have known English teachers with degrees in law, theology, history . . . Also, there are teachers I know who have done their PGCE in another subject, e.g. a friend of mine did a degree in English and history and their PGCE in history and is now an English teacher! I don’t think there is any rule as such but it helps a lot in terms of your subject knowledge if you have studied a degree in the subject you teach (although you learn a lot on the job)! I studied Education Studies because in some ways it was history based, it was an international (and comparative) view of education, and there were opportunities to study abroad, although I didn’t take them due to my circumstances at the time. It may be worth mentioning that the previous government were making it clear that they were eager to have teachers to Masters standard, especially new professionals (who can gain credits during their PGCE year at most universities).

Who is the longest serving member in your team/division?

Our Head of English has been at the school and in the post for approximately 10 years.

What is the starting salary and how does this increase over time with promotion?

When I started teaching, the starting salary was £17k, with an increase every year. The responsibility/promotion is decided within particular parameters by the school. After 6 years of teaching, you have to apply to be put onto the Upper Pay Spine (UPS), and as a teacher you are judged by different standards. Please see the additional links for details on this.

If you left this position, what else would you consider/prefer doing?

I would apply to be an Advanced Skills Teacher (AST), which means there is ‘outreach’ work with other schools within the area you specialise. I am also still really interested at working at County Level at some point in the future.

How far is it possible to progress within the organization?

It depends on your interest and also the subject area within which you teach; a lot of the time, promotion is dependent on staff retiring or leaving the school. As a middle manager, I would argue that it is difficult to gain promotion within the institution; I would have to look to move schools.

What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?

If you want to teach, you have to be dedicated, organised and have a love for the subject you want to teach. It is an interesting and exciting profession; no two days are ever the same. However, it is also a frustrating profession in terms of the organisation and politics imposed on you from a variety of different levels; you have to learn to leave these at the classroom door. In terms of leadership, it is important to lead by example and understand that every member of your team is different, and to be aware that these individuals will require support in different ways.

What are the most important qualities an applicant must should possess?

Organisation, dedication, patience, willingness to go the ‘extra mile’ and a great deal of flexibility.

Any closing comments/thoughts?

Teaching and leadership within the teaching profession is exciting and rewarding but it is by no means an easy job.

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