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A Study of "effective" departments in secondary schools in the United Kingdom

Alma Harris, Ian Jamieson, and Jen Russ

Research into why six subject departments that appeared to be adding significantly more to pupil's achievements than might be expected from their intake found they share a number of things in common.

Journal issue: 

A Study of




This study reports empirical work with a small sample of schools in a West Country city in England. It builds upon previous research work by two of the authors which identified the features of school improvement within a city context. Central to both research projects was the provision of multi-level value added data provided by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). All the schools in the study were involved in this value added measurement.

The information collected by the NFER produced a “value added” analysis for individual schools and individual subject areas. This data made it possible to observe that within schools which were considered either relatively effective, neutral, or relatively ineffective, individual departments performed differentially well. This finding duplicates other research (see Notes).

The research concentrated on a small number of departments which were effective in the sense that their GCSE results (see Notes), computed by NFER on a value added basis, indicated that the students studying these subjects were progressing further than might be expected from consideration of their intake. It was further agreed that the study should be a qualitative one relying primarily on interview data from the senior management team, the departmental members, and pupils.



The research literature, while wide ranging on the topic of whole school effectiveness and whole school improvement, has been relatively silent on departmental effectiveness. Only recently, has research highlighted the importance of this area. Indeed, few research projects have concentrated specifically upon departmental effectiveness. Of these projects, the NFER’s study of effective heads of department is possibly the most notable. In contrast, other research studies have concentrated largely upon subject level issues without much consideration of departmental organisation or management.

The central aim of our study was to explore effective departments from the perspectives of participants using semi-structured interviewing. Two sets of interview questions were subsequently produced, one for members of the senior management team which focused on school level matters and their perception of the relevant department; another for departmental members which focused on the organisation and activities of the department itself. Finally, a set of questions for pupils was developed which began with some general questions about teaching and learning in the school and then progressively focused on the key department. A total of six “effective” departments were selected for study representing a range of subjects (English, mathematics, science and humanities).


Many research studies have shown that the style of management adopted within a school is centrally important in the perceived and realised effectiveness of the whole school. It is a commonplace observation in the effective schooling literature to state that for departments to be really effective they need to be “nested” inside schools which are themselves managed effectively. As a direct consequence of this observation we explored whether there were any consistent relationships between the school’s management policy and the effective departments.

We found that there were several aspects of whole school policy that our departments were actively building upon. The first was a stress on the importance of the pupils that clearly went beyond the usual professional rhetoric. The schools in our study were characterised by systematic developments aimed at providing a caring environment for pupils and every effort was made to involve them fully in the life of the school. The leadership of these institutions acknowledged that they were trying to raise the expectations of both pupils and staff.

The emphasis on pupils could also be seen in whole school strategies concerned with pupil behaviour and rewards. By and large these schools were noticeable for policies which emphasised the importance of rewarding positive behaviour and a wide range of achievements (not just the academic). Using rewards rather than punishments to change behaviour was considered by staff to be important in raising motivation. This whole school policy provided an important backdrop to departmental policy on rewards and punishments. Most of the departments replicated the emphasis on reward and had adopted ways of working which reinforced the whole school policy.

The other whole school aspect which encouraged departments to become more effective was the stress which heads and senior management teams were beginning to place on the scrutiny of examination and test results at a departmental level. We found that the involvement of the senior management teams in working with departments to use examination results in a formative way was an important contributor to effectiveness. Heads of department (HoDs) in these schools knew that they were being held accountable for the results in their subjects but in the accelerating departments this was not viewed as a threat. Instead, the HoDs felt that this was a process which was both a necessary and justifiable route to further departmental improvement.


Climate for change

In looking at the management styles and structures of the departments there were some interesting similarities in the way in which they were managed. Interestingly, three of our departmental heads were relatively new and had inherited less than satisfactory situations in their departments. In these schools there was a view that “something needed to be done” and so the incoming HoD had inherited a situation where innovation and change were expected. When this factor is coupled with poor departmental performance, it is clear that these heads inherited a situation which was likely to be more favourably disposed towards new methods of working. Clearly, the climate for change is an important factor in becoming more effective and a new head of department has the advantage of being able to create this climate more readily.


All of these departments were marked by a clear and shared sense of vision that largely emanated from, and was propagated by, the HoD. This vision embraced the nature of the subject and how it should be organised for teaching purposes. One of the most striking findings of this study was the great emphasis on collegiate styles of management adopted by the HoD. By and large these were “talking departments”, that is departments that were marked by a constant interchange of professional information at both a formal and informal level. Departmental meetings tended to be frequent, often in addition to those scheduled for all the departments in the school, and with clear purposes. One department systematically used some of these meetings for professional development of staff.


One mark of collegiality, which was present in many of the departments, was the amount of delegation of tasks. The HoDs exhibited trust in their colleagues and most teachers in the departments were allocated particular responsibilities for which they took the lead on behalf of the whole department.

The collegiate model of management was led in slightly different ways by different HoDs depending on their personal style. All of them could probably be described as “leading professionals” in the sense that their own mode of practice was regarded as the model to follow, particularly in teaching. Although none of these departments was marked by much prescription about teaching styles or strategies, there were shared characteristics like enthusiasm for the subject and for pupils’ learning which underpinned their work together. A “leading professional” did not mean that these HoDs were advocates of all the latest innovations in their subjects, indeed in some cases the HoDs were most cautious about “innovation for innovation sake”.

The leadership style of these heads of successful departments also varied within the more general collegiate model. The variation was a function of personal style and the context within which they worked. One head, who had inherited a department in serious difficulties, was very much the leader whose role was to persuade the rest of the department about the wisdom of new ways of working. Other HoDs were more inclined to see themselves as coordinators of other professionals. All of these heads seemed very skilled at managing interpersonal relationships within their departments. The degree of trust and confidence in their abilities enabled them to bring everybody along with difficult decisions.

Organisation and resource management

In managerial terms the real success of these departments lay in their ability to organise key elements of the teaching and learning process in an effective way. All of these departments had detailed and agreed schemes of work that had been collectively approved. Sometimes these schemes had been worked on by the whole department, sometimes a system of division of labour had been evolved whereby particular members of staff worked on areas of their own expertise. These schemes of work generally had the following features: they were consistent with the general vision of the subject in the department; they were very detailed with clear guidance; they were regarded as important documents and were easily accessible in the department; they had been agreed by all the department after discussion.

If the schemes of work were indicators of good organisation in the departments, then so was the management of resources and their deployment. With one exception these were not particularly well resourced departments but the resources they had were particularly well deployed. For most of the accelerating departments the “bottom line” was the enhancement of teaching and learning for all pupils. This was achieved through the optimum allocation of material and human resources.

Monitoring and evaluation

Another aspect of good management that was a noticeable feature of these departments was their stress on pupil record keeping. Each of these departments could produce, almost instantly, a detailed profile of each pupil taking the subject which recorded progress, very often including detailed assessments of strengths and weaknesses in the subject. Very often such records were systematically shared with pupils so that they too knew exactly how they were doing in the subject and on what aspects they needed to work harder.

A consistent feature of the departments was that of systematic monitoring and evaluation of pupils’ learning outcomes within class groups. In these departments, mechanisms for monitoring pupil progress and self-evaluation were found to be tightly in place and reinforced through the department. Information about the progress of individual students was seen to be collected through a variety of means, on a regular basis, and shared within and across departments/faculties. The recording and reviewing procedures in place in the “accelerating” departments were also found to be important in the early identification of potential underachievement. Where this was the case we found that the departments had specific strategies for offsetting this trend and addressing the problem.


When considering the effectiveness of departments it is difficult to ignore the effectiveness of individual teachers. A significant part of the success of these departments lay in their ability to channel some of the energies and skills of their staff to maximum effect with their pupils. This is why good resource allocation, agreed schemes of work, record keeping, and systematic review proved to be so important. With such support mechanisms in place, all departmental members could comfortably work to their individual capacities and strengths. Without such support mechanisms there was a greater danger that the department would suffer from a greater amount of idiosyncratic teaching.

Staff turnover

There was one final element which looked distinctive in these effective departments, and that was low staff turnover (albeit in schools which were generally marked by low staff turnover). The effective schools literature has also shown that low staff turnover is an important feature of effective schooling. It would seem that for departments, like schools, a consistency of approach with pupils is obviously an advantage.


Structure and feedback

The heart of effective departments must be the effective organisation of teaching and learning. It was noticeable that the pupils we interviewed by and large identified these departments as being different from most of the other departments in the school. What became clear from the pupils interviewed was the importance of structuring and feedback. The structuring of lessons so that they formed part of a coherent whole to pupils was clearly important. Similarly, the opportunity to receive regular feedback on progress was considered useful and in most cases highly re-assuring for pupils.


This modularisation was reinforced by the assessment system—each module was assessed. In general terms it was argued that this served two important functions. First, the pupils found it motivating to work for short-term targets; secondly, the teacher believed that it was a very useful tool in diagnosing pupil strengths and weaknesses.

In general, another distinctive feature of these departments was the care and attention which they paid to the process of assessment. The assessment system tended to have the following features:

• There was excellent, detailed, and up-to-date record keeping—one example included a sophisticated spread sheet of student marks.

• Great stress was placed in trying to make marking consistent within the department.

• Efforts were made to try and give the pupils, particularly the older ones, a stake in the assessment. They were often invited to mark each other’s and their own work and discuss their marks with the teacher in order to try and understand the strengths and weaknesses of their own efforts.

• The assessment system was used as the vehicle for frequent feedback to the pupils, feedback that tended to be more criterion than norm referenced.

• Finally, as mentioned earlier, most of these effective departments made a great deal of use of the merit system to reward performance, actively seeking out occasions to give rewards. These assessment-linked activities tended to provide the pupils with a clear sense of progression which assisted motivation. In particular, it allowed them to highlight some of their own weaknesses on which they could concentrate.

Of course a significant amount of assessment was related to homework. The departments in our study had consistent, and consistently applied, homework policies. This resulted in a clear routine for the setting and marking of homework. Such homework often involved, or had the potential to involve, parents. Homework tended to be returned quickly and good work was celebrated and displayed, thus reinforcing the pupils’ homework behaviour. Our interviews with pupils appeared to indicate that they tended to undertake more homework in the effective department’s subjects.

Teaching and learning

More generally we built up a picture of these departments as places where the syllabus and the special ways of working which were required to be successful were shared with the pupils. Pupils were encouraged to construct their own view of the world as seen through the focusing lenses of the discipline, and carefully refocused if necessary to ensure examination success. A degree of personal autonomy was encouraged—the coursework folders were for their benefit; adequate notes should be taken because they were to be used for their revision. Our cross-section of pupil interviews did seem to indicate that this message had been largely successful.

The picture we received of teaching and learning in the departments under scrutiny was of a set of reasonably consistent practices concerned with the infrastructure of teaching and learning, for example, assessment and monitoring of pupil performance. When it came to teaching style then in general a degree of autonomy ruled, within the infrastructure each teacher was allowed to go her or his own way.


To summarise, at the individual classroom level, the research found that effective teaching and learning was stimulated and strengthened:

• when there was an attempt to involve all pupils in the learning process by providing a variety of tasks which dealt with individual small group and large group situations;

• where teachers encouraged co-operative learning where pupils work together as part of a team sharing experiences, being given different roles and developing their own self-esteem;

• where pupils were actively involved in a review and reflection of the learning process and were given the opportunity of engaging in some form of action planning process which contributed to their learning;

• where teachers developed meaningful, formative developmental and motivational forms of assessment which reinforced and built confidence.


In this investigation of effective departments within schools in the south-west of the United Kingdom, our strategy has been to look for similarities in the work of the departments which seems likely to translate into effective teaching and learning. Looking back on our evidence we are convinced that these departments do present a reasonably consistent profile which is consonant with high performance. In presenting our findings we have concentrated on similarities between the departments rather than the differences and in so doing we have perhaps run the danger of suggesting that there is a recipe of an effective department.

If we briefly summarised the major features of our effective departments, we would characterise them as being good at either working with or neutralising external influences. The schools they worked in were broadly supportive, but this was not a major factor in their success. They were largely successful because of their own efforts, and the major features of their success could be summarised as follows:

• a collegiate management style,

• a strong vision of the subject effectively translated down to the level of the classroom,

• well organised in terms of assessment, record keeping, homework, etc.,

• good resource management,

• an effective system for monitoring and evaluating,

• structured lessons and regular feedback,

• clear routines and practices within lessons,

• a strong pupil-centred ethos that systematically rewards pupils,

• opportunities for autonomous pupil learning, and

• a central focus on teaching and learning.

The study also raises a number of interesting questions which require further study. In the first place, it is important to know whether these findings can be replicated elsewhere. The evidence base for this study is modest and this needs to be widened before we can place full confidence in the findings. Secondly, we need some even finer-grained studies so that we can see whether there are distinctive features of different subject departments. For example, what features do successful English departments share amongst themselves because they are English departments and what are more generally shared amongst all departments? Thirdly, we need to know whether some of the factors we have identified in these effective departments are more significant than others. Finally, we need to acknowledge the distinct-iveness of the socio-economic context of this particular study and see whether the findings can be replicated in very different settings.

To date, most school effectiveness research studies have been large scale and directed at the level of the whole school. In a sense this is odd because those studies emphasise the importance of an emphasis on teaching and learning in the school, yet it is departmental rather than whole school management which is closest to this core function. Brown et al. (1995) have suggested that traditional forms of school effectiveness research should be complemented by smaller-scale studies which draw upon ethnographic and phenomenological approaches. We believe that this study is a “complementary approach” which demonstrates the potential of school effectiveness studies located at departmental, or classroom level.


DR ALMA HARRIS is currently at the Centre for Teacher and School Development, the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom.

PROFESSOR IAN JAMIESON and JEN RUSS are at the Centre for School Improvement, University of Bath, United Kingdom.

The General Certificate of Secondary Education, or GCSE, is a qualification which can be taken in a variety of subject areas, for instance, maths, languages, history. Most students take up to eight GCSE courses, starting when they are 14-year-olds.

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Harris, A., & Russ, J. (1994). Pathways to school improvement. Sheffield: TEED, Department of Employment.

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