Subject Leadership of Physical Education

A set of guiding principles for effective line management

‘The most powerful leadership tool we all have is our own example”
John Wooden

During my 9 years of Senior leadership experience I have been very privileged to work with and lead some excellent subject leaders in most of the subject areas currently offered in Secondary education. As my role has developed and changed, different subjects have come and gone, however one subject that has been a constant throughout, is the line management of Physical Education.

I am a PE teacher of 15 years, more recently I have taught more Mathematics than PE, I love being in the classroom, however I have always tried to keep involved in PE. Line managing PE is a great way to stay involved and current. It is not always easy and sometimes whole school decisions take you further away from the subject you love, but this “big picture” overview is essential in strategic leadership.

Due to promotions, changes in roles and maternity leaves, I have worked with and line managed 5 heads of PE, each unique to the role and each with their own vision for Physical Education. Although, they are different in approach, the constant factor is a passion and commitment for their subject. They also have a desire to improve attainment outcomes and the physical experience for their students. Working with these practitioners has permitted me to create a series of principles (Principle leadership is very important!) that has become my fundamentals when leading PE departments.

5 Guiding Principles in the Leadership of Physical Education

Leadership of Physical Education

Principle 1 – Subject understanding

I am not saying you have to be a PE expert to lead PE, in fact I have seen PE lead brilliantly by non- specialist SLT, because their lack of understanding ensured the head of PE’s clarity and “why” had to be communicated comprehensively, which ensured deep thought before any proposal. I am saying the line managers need a good “inner working” knowledge and subject understanding to effectively line manage PE.

PE is unique. Every subject has its own nuances, yet PE is unique. PE has differences in timetable rotations, equipment and use of space management that is often lost to whole school use or interrupted by other factors. PE has many “specialist activities” including balancing classroom examination courses, practical spaces, fixtures and extracurricular.  It also has a considerable health and safety regime. The list continues………. sports days, budgets etc.

Understanding this will allow you to work with the subject leader to be solution focused. It will ensure you help move PE forward, both with teaching and the general management. PE is complicated, be sure to listen and empathise. The subject lead will not always get exactly what they want, and the line manager will have decisions to make that do not always please the PE team, but having “subject knowledge” will achieve the best solutions for all, most notably the students.

Principle 2 – Deliberately highly visible

With most subjects if you walk a block, corridor, or area you get a feel for a department. You can drop into lessons and teachers quickly; you know where most teachers will be and how they are teaching. Often line managers will ‘visit’ an area and see what they find.

If you line manage PE, you must be more deliberate if you really want to support and know your department. PE teachers move, three to four times (or more) a day. To be visible you need to know the PE timetable and you need to know what this entails. Visiting the bottom field in November to see year 7 rugby is very different to seeing year 11 GCSE PE classroom, both equally as important. SLT often get into routines, in the way they walk the school, which lessons and year groups they see, what times of the days they do this. If this becomes the norm, then you get a very one-dimensional impression of the school and this becomes even more exaggerate for PE. Only seeing indoor lessons or end of lessons, particularly of the same teacher may not be that useful. You want to get the full experience your students get, and you want to see teachers at their best, this may be very different environments for different PE teachers. 

As a line manger you need to support by seeing teachers in a range of different situations. This also means knowing the school’s extra-curricular offer and fixture list. Again, plan your time and be visible when possible. You will not be able to attend all but attending none is not an option. Also think about the impression you give if you only attend when a team is in the cup final, or only make time for the first XI ‘big game’. It is likely your PE team will organise events that are different to any other subject, these might include young sports leaders, primary events and weekend community events, again where possible support the team.

Principle 3 – Pitch in

In all the subject areas you are involved in you should try to pitch in. It should be your aim to contribute to the shared vision the subject leader is trying to achieve. Most commonly this is teaching within the department, sign posting to appropriate provision, offering advice and responding to requests from within the department. On a more basic level, it could be simply teaching a lesson to create capacity for someone else, or when a colleague is away, offering to step in and help with lesson planning or delivery.

This maybe more straightforward in some subjects than others, nevertheless it can often be achieved with simple solutions and by listening to the subject leader. Ideas that I have experienced include keeping a building clear of students at set times so departments get a break and can collaborate, enforcing central detentions to free teachers up to offer other provision or have lunch, ensuring students get to their oral assessments on time so the teachers do not need to worry. These might be small actions but have significant impact.

Within PE we often have to think more creatively. A great way to support is to get involved. This could be to offer an extra-curricular club (or support the teacher leading it), drive a minibus to fixture or umpire a game if you can. Not only will it be extremely helpful, it will give you a great insight into the culture of the PE department. Often it is not about time consuming, over promising and under delivering flamboyant offers, it is about a conscious effort to support the ambition of the department. It’s about de-cluttering to allow subject experts to focus on their core business.

Principle 4 – Recognising the balance

PE teachers often have a balancing act, this may be between their teaching, where they are balancing practical lessons, classroom lessons, being a tutor and extra-curricular lessons. In every PE department I have been involved in there has been at least one member of staff who is balancing a PE role and a pastoral role such as Head of year or Head of house. In some cases, PE teachers will be balancing teaching a second subject or subject out of specialism. All these factors contribute to the difficulty of leading a subject for both the line manager and subject leader.

The first part for effective leadership is to recognise the balance needed, highlight the potential hot spots and approach them proactively. The second and more important factor is effective communication between all stake holders involved. At teacher to subject leader and subject leader to line manager there needs to be great communication, including listening to each other and being prepared for a bit of give and take to make it work.

No one wants to dilute their product, the adults involved all want the best for their students within their areas. By understanding the balance, being prepared to listen and adapt but not compromise on quality often ensures a better, agreed approach to the offer and experiences students receive. As leaders we must always remember what is like performing ‘other roles. Teaching is a high valued craft, leading a subject is an aptitude and we must never forget the time and energy that goes into every role.

Principle 5 – Raise the profile

As a leader it is your duty to raise the profile of every subject you are involved in. Like the other guiding principles this needs careful consideration and deliberate planning. Raising the profile is not just about public praise for ‘big events’ or over praising for everyday work. It is ensuring that every subject is thought about in an appropriate manner.

Typically, this is learning to recognise hard work and saying thank you for it. Some roles within schools and within a PE team lend themselves more to public recognition, this is important, but no more so than the teacher who quietly delivers their role consistently well. As leaders we need to take time out to think about this and make an effort to recognise the attributes we want to see most.

Raising the profile also involves ensuring that every subject is considered in decisions. This does not mean we have to consult on everything, sometimes decisions need to be made, however where possible we should put ourselves in the subject leaders’ shoes and consider how this will affect them and ensure they have a voice. If a core purpose is to promote PE or increase participation, then we should consider each decision that may affect this.

Equally when introducing new initiatives or implementing change, such as teaching and learning input or accountability meetings it is your responsibly to ask, ‘what does this look like for PE?’ ‘How will this improve the PE offer?’ ‘How can this opportunity develop the subject leader?’

Each of these questions or similar are asked internally and can be substituted for other departments, however without asking them we are in danger of missing an important element of leadership. Without a clear purpose on why you are doing something often it will not have the desired outcome you want.  

These guiding principles are designed to support subject leadership, they are not an exhaustive list, there are many general principles about how you conduct meetings? and how to communicate? that are not on the list but are equally as important. Instead these should evoke deep thought and spark deliberate actions that will help your leadership of physical education, and the PE team more effectively, the sole purpose of any leadership role is to move the team, person or task forward and leave it in a better place than when you acquired it!

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