Why Primary Teachers Are Failing Our Children

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Why do primary schools not employ specialists?

Primary teachers are General Practitioners but what children (and fellow staff) need are experts to consult and go to who are mad keen on their subjects and can answer questions, challenge and inspire.

We don’t expect secondary teachers to teach the whole curriculum but we seem quite happy to let primary teachers carry the burden, leading to a fundamental failure in teaching key areas of the curriculum.

La La Land

A primary teacher competent throughout the primary curriculum is a very rare breed and when it comes to ‘subject knowledge and understanding’, there are so many instances teaching is just not up to scratch.

Switching from one curriculum area to another and expecting top-notch teaching, learning and assessment in every subject is La La land teaching.

The practicality of a KS2 teacher having good enough knowledge of ten subjects (as well as cross-curricular themes), was given prominence by Robin Alexander, Jim Rose and Chris Woodhead in their so-called “three wise men report”.

Whilst there have been some shifts towards more specialist teaching, little has changed and many primary practitioners are “doing the lot”.


Most of the time you will find colleagues having to “wing it” and pretend they know what they are talking about when in fact they don’t. I have worked with countless teachers who pretend to a greater level of competence and knowledge than they know to be the case.

Adopting this persona then results in a curious self-deception where they actually start to think they know more than they do and then make others believe it. It’s not unusual to teach something that you only read about the day before.

A very significant chunk of the workload problem for primary teachers is the fact that being the Jack and Jill of all trades puts an enormous pressure on the time taken to learn what it is we need to teach. The breadth and depth of learning required to successfully teach the curriculum suite of subjects is out of reach.

All-rounder, All-flounder

Too many primary teachers are given the post of a subject leader responsible for coordinating a curriculum area without being a specialist or having the relevant experience to do the job.

I know a number of maths subject leaders who end up being a maths coordinator because of school tectonics. Many have never been interviewed for the job but are part of a school where there are numerous cabinet reshuffles owing to staff leaving and illnesses or senior leaders push the wrong people forward.

Subject specialists obviously don’t have all the answers but they will be far more qualified to make sense of their subject and teach with real insight. This is why some many primary schools do employ subject specialists who will teach their subject all day, every day. These tend to be in modern foreign languages, P.E., music or computing. Why not for every subject?

What’s the solution?

Employ someone with a hunger and thirst for their subject and you will make children hungry and thirsty for that subject too. If you are a GP you just cannot generate that same intensity and passion for every single subject so everyone starves.

Subject specialists are desperately needed in our primary schools and ditching the traditional primary polymath model would transform teaching and learning quality.

Being a full-time class teacher and subject leader is archaic – leading a subject demands time and effort and you can’t develop expertise if you are teaching everything else.

What do you think?


18 thoughts on “Why Primary Teachers Are Failing Our Children

  1. Whilst I agree with what you are saying, specialists are needed in some areas of the primary classroom, but as a primary school teacher, I find this title harsh! We all work tirelessly to support, nurture, care, teach, inspire the children in our classrooms… I don’t think it is our fault! Leadership need to make new decisions to direct and use teachers to the best of our ability. We have had so many changes recently, which have knocked many of us for 6, it seems sad to load more guilt and blame onto the already exhausted and overburdened primary teacher.
    Written by a teacher, who loves their job and being with the children, but is tired of government meddling!

    1. I completely agree with your comment. The title is unnecessary and will create incredibly bad feelings amongst primary teachers. I would spend all day Saturday learning the curriculum before planning all day Sunday. Not a long term strategy, I admit, but required to upskill myself and continuously develop my knowledge to where I needed it to be. I agree it is not appropriate for 1 Teacher to be an expert in all subjects however this should be addressed much more sensitively.

    2. The writers are partly agreeing with you -titles are there to grab attention, as you must know, but it’s not so far from the truth.
      I previously taught English/Literacy to post-16 students and adults in F.E. and am now a Primary S.E.N. T.A.
      During the past few months, I have been shocked at the poor level of English knowledge and teaching in primary classrooms – it’s embarrassing. The needs of less able students are not catered for, e.g. resources and explanation, and lessons are poorly-structured and communicated, meaning that students are learning far less than they could in the 45 minutes given, which is not long enough anyway. Lessons should be 90 minutes, at least, to allow for vocabulary knowledge (often lacking), teaching, practising and consolidation of skills. Students are sometimes taught the wrong thing or areas of ignorance are glossed over; children deserve better than this. The same is true for maths and science. If I’m being completely honest, some teachers are just not clever enough to teach one subject, let alone several.
      No one is arguing that teachers don’t work hard or that government meddling isn’t a massive problem, but being hard-working and well-meaning aren’t enough for this difficult job any more, if it ever was.
      It’s obvious that there isn’t enough time to teach all these subjects well to the required standard – that’s why the answer is specialist subject teachers who really know what they’re doing . A one year PGCE course is totally inadequate to prepare teachers for this role, especially if their own communication skills are poor to start with.
      If teachers really cared about children’s learning, they’d stop being so defensive about what’s not possible, and get behind possible solutions, one of which is specialist subject teaching.
      On the issue of creating a relationship with the children, that’s fine if the relationship is good. If it’s not, they’re stuck with the same person all day, every day, which can be a disaster. Not all teachers are kind and nurturing, however hard they pretend to be. A fresh approach and personality can be a real relief, especially if this is a mix of male and female teachers.
      I know this will be unpopular, but children just aren’t being well-served as things are. Sometimes, “good enough” isn’t good enough.

  2. You make some good points about the need for subject specialist knowledge in primary schools but unfortunately this is wrapped up in quite an insulting tone. I was surprised to read this from you as usually your articles, whilst provocative, are balanced.
    You are ignoring, and in your case forgetting, the fact that primary teaching is a skill. When teachers have this skill they are quite capable of delivering most of the curriculum. My weakness is music and I regularly partner with someone else in school so they can teach music and I teach computing or their weak area. The positive of small local MATs should be more of this shared expertise. If that MAT includes a secondary then the hope would be that their specialist knowledge would be used to inspire. But the main focus must be training and workload so primary staff can be excellent at everything they do.

  3. I think this is harsh.

    I think that considering how much primary teachers have had to deal with in recent years, we’re doing a bloody good job of providing a decent education against the odds.

    Also, I am never one to blow my own trumpet but I’m going to this time. My subject knowledge across the board is bloody good. Even SLT have said so. Trust me, that’s saying something.

    The question is not ‘are our primary teachers failing?’, rather ‘how are our primary teachers being failed?’

  4. I love being a generalist primary school teacher, but I agree that it’s difficult to be the “font of all wisdom”. We can’t know everything well, and there were certainly areas of the curriculum with which I was not comfortable and probably failed to inspire children as much as someone passionate in the area could. However I am passionate about learning and about following up children’s interests, and am a keen learner myself. In some ways, those things compensate for a lack of first-hand knowledge. Children and teacher learning together can be a good thing. It takes the reliance for knowledge away from the teacher.

    1. But teachers should be a “fount (short for fountain) of all knowledge” – at least where a ten-year old is concerned. (A ‘font’ is where babies are baptised.) Look it up together at the time – don’t just blag and misinform the children, as I’ve seen on so many occasions. Of course enthusiasm doesn’t make up for lack of knowledge – what sort of nonsense is that?! I’ve often seen teachers act as if accuracy doesn’t matter, to preserve their sense of self-importance. No wonder there’s so much ignorance out there.

  5. Hello I have got 10 or so O levels in all the subjects I used to teach at primary level for 29 years . I say used to because I have given in my notice largely because of attitudes like the smug harsh and insulting author of the article above . I think I was more than capable of teaching all subjects equally well except for IT. That’s why I became a primary teachers. The problem lies with how appallingly teachers have been treated over successive governments of all parties. No longer a high status well paid job you will never attract the top 20% of intellectual ability and wide ranging subject knowledge , they have more sense than to go in for teaching nowadays wake up Get real look what’s reallyour going on in or professional

  6. I totally agree with the theory. The theory is great & could reduce teacher workload.

    However, I love teaching all things. I have a maths degree, but I chose primary as I didn’t want to teach maths all day. I wanted to share a love of learning across the whole curriculum. You will find as much passion in my maths teaching, as you will my english teaching, geography, music, re & most other curriculum subjects.

    Alas, the children do need a mention here too. Young children learn better when they are known, and known well, by the teacher. Having a different teacher for each subject will be to the detriment of their whole education. My 6 year olds struggle enough with the regular person covering my PPA …8+ teachers across the week? They’d lose the plot.

    Great idea for teachers who have a passion for 1 or 2 subjects, but rubbish for those of us who love teaching many things & ultimately rubbish for the kids IMO

  7. I find your comments harsh and insulting. At a time when education is at an all time low, these kind of articles do nothing to promote teachers staying in the profession. So you are an Ofsted inspector too. That worries me more….

  8. I’ve never been tempted to respond before, but seriously, who needs enemies with our own profession writing titles like this? To so crassly insult a whole swathe of fellow professionals … it’s beneath you, and I’m surprised at Teacher Toolkit for allowing it.

    Apart from totally dismissing the work of a highly skilled education sector, many (most?) of whom would freely admit to having strengths and weaknesses (would you, by the way?), you have also shown a fundamental misunderstanding about how young children learn. As Mrs B has explained so clearly, young children need continuity and stability. We’ve all seen classes, right up to year 6, fall apart with PPA teachers.

    Subject specialism can play an important part in primary life, but to suggest that without it children are being failed is unforgivable.

    If you were to arrive as an Ofsted inspector at my school I’d be on the phone pretty fast explaining why you are unsuitable to judge my school.

  9. What an amazing way of developing a rich joined up curriculum with children transferring skills across the curriculum. Sigh!

  10. I don’t think the writer intended to insult us. Perhaps he was just putting it out there for comment. The use of the word failing is unfortunate. It is true we are required to take on more and more subject areas and new topics. I have enjoyed most of it over 42 years. However, the new ICT and computing curriculum is my downfall. I seriously am out of my depth now. I’ve managed to take on all the rest but this is a bit of a struggle. Just want to say I am very good with ICT in the normal course of events and can manage early level coding. I am fine with general ICT. But the complexity of what is expected when you have moved on from the basics is very tricky. I have no idea how to programme the lights the local area might need at a nearby junction and have no idea how to present it to the children in a teaching sequence.
    Time to plan and prepare a new area like this is lacking. I would happily bow out for an expert. Planning amazing lessons for many areas is a challenge at the best of times. I’ve finally run out of steam and have decided to retire. The hours in the day just don’t accommodate the work load. I dint think I need to elaborate on that.

  11. I am presuming this article was written to be deliberately provocative and promote debate. It has succeeded! I love teaching in the primary age range BECAUSE I am a generalist and not a specialist. The children in a primary school learn better with fewer teachers. Primary teachers teach study skills, personal and social skills, cross curricula ideas etc throughout the day whilst all the time delivering knowledge in many subjects. We do learn ourselves sometimes just before we deliver new subject matter and this Is not a weakness. We can more easily predict the misconceptions and sticking points many children will face in lessons and plan accordingly. I have observed many specialist teachers deliver poor lessons compared to a high quality generalist primary teacher who has finely honed communication and behaviour management skills. In the primary sector, communication skills win over specialist knowledge every time. All power to the multi talented primary teachers. Good ones are a truly amazing breed. Stick with it, folks!

  12. It would be interesting to have both learning options available to students. School A is all generalist teaching vs School B is all specialist teaching, School B being the same as most Secondary schools.

    Then we can see what the parents and students themselves choose. Specialist and Generalists can argue all they like about what is more appropriate, I’m a specialist myself, but I’d be more keen to listen to what parents and children think themselves and ultimately give them the choice.

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