Thursday, 28 April 2011

Chris Port Blog #242. What Makes An Effective Department? A Case Study.

© Chris Port, Central School of Speech and Drama, 2000

‘... diagnosis lies at the heart of effective management.’
(Handy 1976:18).

This case study takes the form of a parochial diagnosis with occasional wider implications rather than a prescriptive and universal prognosis on what makes an effective Drama Department. This essential modesty is justified by the following considerations:

  1. ‘Effectiveness’ is an ambiguous term which requires a separate rigorous precursory debate [e.g. effective for what or whom?];
  2. the large number of different variables for organizational effectiveness [Handy (1976) identifies over 60 different variables and warns against ‘selective focusing’ (Handy 1976:15)].

The limited terms of reference for this case study are therefore as follows:

  1. Background of school and pupils.
  2. Management structure of the Performing Arts Department.
  3. A critique of management structure in terms of effective pupil learning.
  4. Whole school policy in relation to pupil learning.
  5. A critique of how whole school policy is implemented in the Performing Arts Department.
  6. A critique of the philosophy of the Performing Arts Department and how is it implemented in practice.

For brevity’s sake, quantitative data and extracts from policy statements have been kept to a minimum lest the reader not see the wood for the trees (or the pupils for the policies). Instead, I have selected areas of interest where policy and practice do not seem to be consistent, or practice has evolved ad hoc to fill the vacuum left by a lack of considered policy. Examples of good practice or policy are also included to avoid a lop-sided negative perspective.

1. Background of school and pupils.

This case study is focused on a foundation mixed comprehensive school (referred to hereafter as School R.) School R is situated in the outskirts of a large Essex town where its catchment area consists mainly of local authority housing estates. The total school roll consists of 897 pupils aged 11 to 18. To give a ‘flavour’ of the school population, various categorisations of the pupil roll are tabled below in Figure 1:

Figure 1: Categorisations of pupil roll (out of a total of 897).

Category (out of a total of 897)
No. of pupils
 % of total roll
Eligible for free school meals
On Special Educational Needs (SEN) Register


Special Educational Needs (SEN) Statemented


English as an Additional Language (EAL)



* Gender ratio (Girl/Boy): 1.14/1

** According to recent unpublished research, the most important factor in the rate of improvement in GCSE results was the proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals (cf. Budge 1999:4).

A recent OFTSED Report (OFSTED 1999), drawing in turn upon a recent detailed report from social services, indicates that the majority of pupils come from disadvantaged and deprived backgrounds:

‘[There are] ... two very deprived wards in the school’s locality. This report highlights the level of poor housing, low levels of employment and high levels of poor health. Well over 50% of pupils attending the school come from these two wards.’ (OFSTED 1999:15).

The school operates a banding system in Years 7 to 9 whereby each year group is divided into three ‘A’ bands (ranges of higher ability) and three ‘B’ bands (ranges of lower ability). This banding system is continued de facto into Years 10 and 11 for core subjects. (There is no banding system in post-16 education). It is noticeable that pupils with Special Educational Needs or behavioural problems tend to be congregated in the ‘B’ groups. This observation is developed in Section 5. A critique of how whole school policy is implemented in the Performing Arts Department.

With regard to our curricular field of interest in Drama, School R has been selected as the Regional Centre of Excellence for Performing Arts. Ten percent of the school’s annual pupil intake is selected by aptitude and ability to engage in an Enhanced Arts Programme, specialising in either Dance, Drama or Music and provided by peripatetic staff. Pupils enrolled on the Enhanced Arts Programme are commonly nicknamed as ‘ten percenters’ and School R derives much prestige from this programme.

2. Management structure of the Performing Arts Department.

The Performing Arts Department is arranged in an ostensibly hierarchical structure. The Head of the Performing Arts Department acts as a middle manager, an interface between the Senior Management Team (SMT), the Heads of the respective Dance, Drama and Music Departments, part-time and supply teachers and peripatetic staff servicing the Enhanced Arts Programme as per Figure 2 below:

Figure 2: The hierarchical structure of the Performing Arts Department.

Board of Governors


Senior Management Team

Head of Performing Arts (Senior Drama Teacher)

Head of Dance
Head of Drama
Head of Music

Part-Time Dance Teacher






Requests for procurement and expenditure are made by Heads of the discrete subject departments to the Head of Performing Arts. The Head of the Performing Arts Department has relative autonomy in approving expenditure of the capitation allowance budgeted by the Board of Governors as follows:

Drama and Dance (combined):
Total capitation allowance:

The Head of Performing Arts is responsible if spending exceeds the capitation allowance.

The Head of Performing Arts also assumes overall responsibility for implementing Health and Safety, implementing directives from the SMT and developing Departmental teaching and learning strategies, curriculum and assessment models and Action plans in liaison with the SMT, Head Teacher and Heads of Department.

In addition, Department Heads often communicate directly with each other on matters of common interest before approaching the Head of Performing Arts with various suggestions for agenda items.

3. A critique of management structure in terms of effective pupil learning.

In actuality, the departmental model outlined in Figure 2 is slightly more fluid than seems apparent at first glance. The Head of Performing Arts and the Head teacher are old acquaintances and often conduct ‘closed sessions’. Here, the Headteacher (by all accounts) conducts meetings in a deliberately confrontational manner reminiscent of Ball’s (1990) identification of the ‘adversorial’ abstract type who ’tends to relish argument and confrontation to maintain control’ (Ball 1990:87).

Significantly, the Headteacher delegates control issues requiring a more Machiavellian approach to one of the Deputy Headteachers who resembles Ball’s (1990) ‘managerial’ abstract type with ‘major recourse to committees, memoranda and formal procedures’ (Ball 1990:87).

Also, the departmental model is currently in a state of flux. At the time of writing (March 2000) the Heads of Dance and Drama have resigned (effective from Easter). It now appears that two new Dance teachers have been contracted to replace the outgoing Head of Dance while retaining the part-time Dance Teacher. The job of the outgoing Head of Drama has been advertised but it is not clear whether the Supply Teacher is a stop gap measure or a semi-permanent expediency. There is some degree of ad hoc flexibility/crisis management in that the Drama Supply Teacher is sometimes asked to cover Dance lessons while the Head of Dance and the part-time Dance Teacher are sometimes asked to cover Drama lessons.

The discrete departments of the Performing Arts Department meet once a week to discuss common issues and disseminate information of mutual interest. A particular feature of these meetings is the discussion of how to implement (or, sometimes, deflect) the regular flow of edicts emanating from the SMT, primarily concerned with increasing Teachers’ involvement in monitoring and accountability (i.e. more reports).

Another common feature is the identification of ‘hot spots’ in the timetable (individuals or groups perceived as misbehaving during lessons for other Arts subjects). When the same groups or individuals recur as ‘hot spots’ in different Arts subjects, various tactics and strategies are discussed to ascertain whether there might be any common solutions.

However, the solutions, as such, usually consist of requests for temporary support from the SMT (the presence of a member of senior management in the teaching space usually quells misbehaviour but can only be a stop-gap measure). The SMT regard misbehaviour monitoring and behaviour targets as the key to improvement with exclusion as a weapon of last resort given ‘... the government’s legally enforced demand that schools curb the number of pupils they expel.’ (Waterhouse and Driscoll 2000:16). However, there is little hope among teaching staff of any long-term strategy to combat misbehaviour unless or until the most disruptive individuals are excluded (cf. Laville 2000:21).

The regular use of misbehaviour monitoring and behaviour targets agreed between SMT, Co-ordinators of Pupil Progress (COPPs) and misbehaving pupils is often secretly and cynically seen by teaching staff as a public relations exercise in paperwork. It does nothing to solve what many teachers (in private conversation) regard as the underlying problems for these pupils: troubled family and disadvantaged social backgrounds leading to behavioural problems and subsequent learning (and teaching) difficulties.

As Doug McAvoy, the NUT’s general secretary, remonstrated with David Blunkett, Education Secretary, over ‘excuses’ for pupil failure: “I urge you to take into account all the background factors, such as home, gender, special educational needs and a high turnover of pupils” [and staff]. (Lightfoot 2000:6).

4. Whole school policy in relation to pupil learning.

There is no shortage of whole school policy statements: Code of Conduct; Discipline and Behaviour; Pastoral Care; Child Protection; Sex Education; Charging and Remissions; Curriculum Complaints; Complaints Procedures; Discipline for Employees; Grievance for Employees; Appeals Procedure; Staff Absence from Duty; Capability Procedure; Staff Development, Pay Policy and last (but not least) Information Technology Policy.

Unfortunately, in all this strategic school policy literature there is very little tactical advice on the everyday politics of effective classroom management. The emphasis is on duties, responsibilities and procedural propriety rather than helping colleagues to cope. Most of these whole school policy statements appear to serve legal rather than educational purposes (a sound policy in itself, given our litigious times) and, when they do mention education, tend to be rather platitudinous (it would be a safe bet to say that any school policy document generally tends to be in favour of good and against evil).

Apart from their deliberately uncontentious legal and moral agenda, the aggregate effect of all these whole school policy statements is to seek to impose a standardization of procedures across all departments. There is an ethos of efficiency and managerial techniques sometimes imported quite blatantly from the world of commerce with an emphasis on ‘quality’ strategies to improve the service being provided. All that remains is to start measuring the school’s effectiveness ‘against the goals negotiated with customers’ (Sallis 1993:125) for the language shift to commerce to be complete.

There is a general emphasis by the Senior Management Team (communicated to the lower echelons through staff briefings and regular development meetings) on improving examination results as a way of attracting parents through the league tables to enrol their children (although recent “added value” league tables measuring improvement rather than ability may yet change the emphasis: cf. Clare 2000:5).

A particular example of this emphasis is the targeting of ‘borderline’ pupils by the SMT (pupils predicted as likely to achieve either a C or a D in particular subjects). The names of these ‘borderline’ pupils are then circulated to subject teachers in the staff briefings; relevant subject teachers are exhorted to focus their efforts on these pupils and encourage them to attend extra-curricular homework classes. The obvious hope here is that, with focused teaching effort, these ‘borderline’ pupils will ‘jump up’ a grade and improve the school’s performance in the league tables.

5. A critique of how whole school policy is implemented in the Performing Arts Department.

This does cause friction in some areas, particularly when applied to the Drama Department. Two examples of this friction are pro forma lesson plans and prescribed weekly homework.

With regard to pro forma lesson plans, these are rarely used by the Drama Department (with the exception of the OFSTED inspection or internal procedural audits). The reason for such apparent laxity is mainly that the Drama Teachers usually rely on their personal hoard of lesson plan resources. These have been developed over many years and are not written in the approved format. However, through experience, the Drama Teachers will usually attempt to regulate their lesson activities in a manner not incompatible with the pro forma; re-writing existing lesson plans into an approved format does not feature highly in the Drama Teachers’ priorities given their heavy bureaucratic workload in other areas.

With regard to homework, there is some inconsistency here. The whole school policy is that homework is timetabled for each subject, each Year group and each band group on particular days. However, the Head of the Performing Arts Department does not favour homework as a rule and tends not to set it as a matter of personal preference (there is also an argument that, as Drama teachers are often involved in extra-curricular activities, they do not have time to mark homework as in other more conventional academic subjects which ‘clock off’ at the end of normal school hours).

More importantly, the Drama Department does not yet have a Departmental Handbook, an agreed curriculum model, assessment criteria or consensus on applying disciplinary procedures against pupils (the Head of Performing Arts is generally against issuing detentions on the grounds that Drama teachers do not have the time to administer them and, with the most disturbed and disruptive pupils, detentions are ineffective).

Differentiation is primarily conducted at group level rather than between individual pupils. As mentioned in Section 1. Background of school and pupils, the school operates a banding system in Years 7 to 9. Each year group is divided into three ‘A’ bands (ranges of higher ability) and three ‘B’ bands (ranges of lower ability). This banding system is continued de facto into Years 10 and 11 for core subjects. Pupils with Special Educational Needs or behavioural problems tend to be congregated in the ‘B’ groups.

Capel, Leask and Turner (1995) differentiate between banding and streaming with the observation that:

‘Banding ... places pupils in broad bands of ability for all subjects. Banding avoids producing classes comprising only pupils of low ability or those unwilling to learn’ (Capel, Leask and Turner 1995:134)

However, in many instances, the predominance of SENs and pupils with emotional and behavioural problems in the ‘B’ groups tends to depress teaching and learning to the lowest common denominator. Particularly in Drama (which is often a group practical activity) the opportunities for disruption were greater than those provided by other, more conventionally desk-bound academic subjects.

Also, the behavioural strategies suggested in many of these disruptive pupils’ IEPs were primarily designed for conventional desk-bound classrooms (e.g. seat the pupil in isolation or only in particular partner or group patterns; provide separate activities appropriate to particular reading ages etc.). While in desk-bound lessons, the tendency was to differentiate by input and set individual appropriate tasks, in Drama lessons the tendency was to differentiate by outcome after setting similar group or partnered tasks.

In a mixed-ability lesson, it might be hoped that social and learning interactions would be such that differentiation in teaching of both input and outcome could be achieved. However, the lower ‘B’ band groups were, de facto, lower streamed  groups (pupils tended to be low achievers in most subjects). Very little differentiation of input could usually be achieved with these groups for the simple reason that very little of any activity could usually get under way without disruptive misbehaviour from a large number of the pupils (often with a rapid cascade effect as boredom took hold). It was not uncommon to observe a senior teacher taking 15 or 20 minutes to settle the class, take the register, administer admonishments for misbehaviour and remove disruptive individuals using the on-call teacher system.

The only temporary effective strategy in dealing with these groups was to use support staff to subdue misbehaviour in the short-term. There was no discernible strategy to improve poor behaviour in the long term other than seeking to improve teacher/pupil relationships through trust and stability (again disrupted due to staff leaving - the loss of the entire Performing Arts Department last year and a similar situation this year).

As mentioned earlier, pupils enrolled on the Enhanced Arts Programme are commonly nicknamed as ‘ten percenters’, sometimes disparagingly by pupils in the lower ‘B’ bands. Contrary to the findings of the recent OFSTED Report (OFSTED 1999) which found ‘ evidence in school of a culture which sneers at achievement’ (OFTSED 1999:23), pupils in the lower ‘B’ Drama bands often revealed through their banter that they felt a sense of rejection while attention was focused on what they perceived as the ‘glitterati’. The banding/streaming of pupils by ability in Drama appears to have created a sub-culture in the lower ability groups where the elitism of performance is mirrored by the elitism of misbehaviour. Hardened disruptive pupils would delight in ‘playing the game’, ticking all of the behaviour targets in their latest round of monitoring reports when the opposite was clearly evident.

6. A critique of the philosophy of the Performing Arts Department and how it is implemented in practice.

The philosophy of the Performing Arts Department does not, as yet, exist as an organizational model. As noted by the OFSTED Inspector:

‘It [the Department] currently lacks a sharply defined policy and management/ development plan which is agreed by the headteacher, senior management team, governors and the department.’ (OFSTED 1999:61-62).

Instead, there is an ad hoc and sometimes contradictory view of Drama in Education, especially at Key Stage 3 when there are no syllabus requirements. The Head of Performing Arts, in their role as Senior Drama Teacher, is reluctant to implement a set curriculum and models of assessment at Key Stage 3, advocating Drama as a means to ‘create positive and confident people though exploration of creativity and sociability’. The Head of Drama, more influenced by teacher training in the Hornbrook model, attempted to introduce consistent schemes of work and assessment criteria at Key Stage 3 (cf. Maxwell 1995:3) but eventually diluted this approach as expectations of pupil attainment levels was constantly reduced in the face of disruptive behaviour (Year 9 groups ended up being taught random lesson plans originally designed for Year 7 groups with lowered learning objectives). The justification for this lowering of expectations was cited from the OFSTED Report (1999):

‘The management plan requires sharply defined targets which provide the criteria whether an activity should take place or not at a given time. The plan must address issues of manageability and sustainability, particularly in relation to staffing and energy levels ... It [the Drama Department] is in many ways starting from scratch. The temptation for the department and for the school is to think that it is rebuilding it.’ (OFSTED 1999:62).

In addition, there is a clear source of conflict between the whole school policy of banding and the Head of Performing Arts' principled and pragmatic objection to this in favour of mixed ability teaching. In essence, this friction exemplifies the two extremes of the academic perspective versus the idealistic perspective. As Stephen Ball notes:

Here we have an opposition between contending definitions of the one stresses equality of access; the other, equality of outcome. These contending definitions are associated with alternative conceptions of the purposes of schooling, of appropriate teacher-pupil relations of learning and of the pedagogical role of the teacher. (Ball 1990:35).

In conclusion, it is clear that one of the criteria for an effective teaching department is continuity and consistency of teaching staff. Estelle Maxwell (1995) notes that:

‘... studies of effective schools have shown that low staff turnover is an important feature of effective schooling and for departments too a consistency of approach with pupils is an advantage.’ (Maxwell 1995:2-3).

Perhaps the final arbiter of whether this case study has identified an effective or ineffective department should be from the lessons learned by failing schools placed under special measures (cf. HMI 1999). Among the key features for success identified by HMI is that of a clearly outlined departmental assessment policy and how management and teachers are to use the information:

‘... gathering assessment information is not enough on its own: the data must be analysed and presented in a format that is meaningful, so that trends and issues are easy to identify.’ (HMI 1999:34).

Unless or until there is a consensus among the senior staff, middle-managers, subject co-ordinators and individual staff about a curriculum model for Drama at Key Stage 3, schemes of work, differentiated learning outcomes, assessment criteria and purposeful data analysis, the Drama department cannot promote effective learning (since no-one can agree on what is supposed to be learned and how progression can be measured). Assessment must be meaningful and subject-specific rather than a league table-friendly ‘one model fits all’. If it is used simply as a means of marketing the school and subject for pupil recruitment and funding, then we are simply dealing with brochure-jargon and not effective learning.

APRIL 2000


Ball, S.J. (1990) The Micro-Politics of the School: Towards a theory of school organization, London, Routledge.

Budge, D. (1999) ‘OU study scotches myth of excellence’, TESNET, 23 April 1999,

Capel, S., Leask, M., and Turner, T. (1995) Learning to Teach in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, London, Routledge.

Clare, J., ‘New league table reveals schools with best teachers’, The Daily Telegraph, 26 February 2000, p5.

Handy, C.B. (1976) Understanding Organizations, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Penguin Books Ltd.

HMI (1999) Lessons learned from special measures: A report from the Office of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, London, OFSTED Publications Centre.

Laville, S., ‘The school that spun out of control’, The Daily Telegraph, 26 February 2000, p21.

Lightfoot, L., ‘New ‘supraheads’ to get £100,000 a year’, The Daily Telegraph, 2 March 2000, p6.

Maxwell, E. (1995) ‘How to be effective’, TESNET, 10 November 1995,

OFSTED (1999) Inspection No. 186070, OFSTED,

Sallis, E. (1993) Total Quality Management in Education, London, Kogan Page Limited.

Waterhouse, R. and Driscoll, M., ‘The Superheads Who Fell To Earth’, The Sunday Times, 19 March 2000, p16.

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