Jack Of None, Master Of Many

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Jen Willis

Jen Willis writes for Teacher Toolkit from a primary perspective. She is currently an assistant head in a primary school in Bolton, Lancashire. She has taught all three key stages in primary with a particular love of year six. She leads EYFS / KS1 and...
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Are primary teachers failing their students by lack of subject specialists?

This was the question posed in an earlier TT blog; my post is to counter-argument that “subject specialists are desperately needed in our primary schools”. Primary teachers aren’t “winging it” –  we are professionals; specialists in teaching and learning children 4- 11.

I wholeheartedly believe in a system at primary level where the relationship between teacher and pupil is central, and the knowledge that a teacher has about that pupil, how they learn and their key next steps are the most critical components to excellent teaching and learning.

Subject vs. Teaching Knowledge

My first class honours degree in Theology and Religious Studies didn’t especially help me teach Year 6 RE, and I’d go as far to say that one of the worst teachers I had at high school was probably one of the cleverest, but we (as pupils) had no idea what he was talking about, because he didn’t understand how to teach teenagers!

Not to say subject knowledge isn’t important – of course it is critical, I’m not denying that. Far from it. It is unarguably and repeatedly highlighted in research as one of the ‘leading impacting factors’ when effective teaching/learning is evaluated and in observations of (often newly qualified) teachers, it is something that is understandably often suggested as a point for development.

However, I would argue that the “subject knowledge” needed in primary school is not about stretching to degree level. What is required, more than knowledge of the content taught, is an understanding of the way that students think about the content; to evaluate the thinking and identify student’s common misconceptions.

Subject Specialists

Primary teachers ARE specialists. We are specialists in teaching children in a specific age range.

  • We have a depth of knowledge about how to engage, how to hook, how to stretch and challenge the young people in our classrooms.
  • We can turn the trickiest of content for seven-year olds into practical and visual concepts that our pupils can not only understand, but can then go on to apply and evaluate.
  • We can control classrooms with an eyebrow raise and capture imaginations by changing the tone of our voices.
  • We are passionate about what we teach, and go to extraordinary lengths for our pupils to experience that passion and love for learning.

Could an English lead with a depth of knowledge of the English curriculum, yet based in Year 6, teach phonics to 5-year olds better than their current class teacher? Probably not. And what is more, the discreet skills taught and practised in those phonics sessions will be applied right across the curriculum.

In addition to subject knowledge, the quality of relationships and interactions between teacher and students has been found to have an immense impact upon teaching and learning, particularly so when working with children under ten. Truly effective teaching requires an active engagement with the children and such connections have been shown to have significant and lasting effects on progress and outcomes. I would argue that the unique relationship built with a class and with individual pupils is at least as important as subject knowledge, impacting significantly upon quality of instruction and dialogue, classroom climate and classroom management.

Of course, I’m not naïve or short-sighted enough to think that in all primary schools we know it all or have it perfect. Far from it. I began teaching in a school with 5 ½ full time teachers, one of whom was an NQT. Every one of us, including the head teacher, had more than one subject to lead, many of us three or four, and yes, at times the workload was phenomenal and we had to prioritise subjects at different times of the school year.

Is it of little surprise to anyone, that when the new curriculum was introduced, schools focussed initially upon mastering Maths and English, possibly to the detriment of the foundation subjects?


1. Teamwork in the true meaning of the word

This can, and has, worked in a number of ways. Teachers could choose to swap classes for sessions over a half term, and from choosing similar topics with the classes, time could be better spent researching finer details and gathering resources.  Coaching and upskilling colleagues in particular curriculum areas also works well, especially if you can get into each other’s classrooms …

2. Stronger links with ‘specialists’

Ten years ago, we had the luxury of a language teacher spending a morning with us every week and our teachers stayed in class and upskilled.  It was fantastic. Another high school sent an Arts teacher in for an afternoon for 3 half terms a year and we benefitted from Music, Art and Drama masterclasses, planned over a period of weeks, building skills to a completed product.  The primary teachers worked alongside their secondary colleagues, helped to maintain the classroom climate and, importantly, learned a new skill and how to teach it.

I hope, in time, we can find a way that it could be partly re-established.

3. Time to improve subject specialist knowledge

Primary teachers need time for class teachers to properly research their topics, talk to specialists and absorb the new knowledge for their year groups. Time for subject leaders to monitor their subjects, work on action plans, spend time in classrooms, research and share good practice. Time for them to liaise with other subject leaders to drive progress in their subjects and research new developments and resources.

Time for senior leaders to recognise the strengths in their team and to identify where, currently, outside expertise could enhance the learning and progress in their school for their children.

Of course, it is about balance – one fixed solution will never be a best fit for all schools in any one time or place.  I guarantee some schools will already have this right for them, but their answer wouldn’t necessarily fit another. Unfortunately, the hamster wheel of teaching is relentless, but it can, given a bit of time, investment and confidence in us as a profession run in a better direction.

We are not failing our students.


New research shows:

… “pupils who were taught by subject-specialists in English and maths saw their grades drop rather than improve.”

4 thoughts on “Jack Of None, Master Of Many

  1. Maybe we should go back to the future by incorporating techniques and philosophies that worked in the past. How about not pushing kids into academics too fast. Kindergarten used to be the intro to school. You had lots of time to play take naps, have snacks, and celebrate things with parties! Now kids are failures if they don’t know how to read before leaving kindergarten?!? How about we spend less time on what sex a kid wants us to think they are and instead focus on academic achievement and studious behaviors and habits. Let’s get politics and other nefarious agendas out of our classrooms and focus on the individual and what the individual is strong and weak at and make a plan to develop the strength into true mastery and the weakness into a decent skill. Let’s support all kids who need help by allowing our funds (tax payer’s dollars) to be spent where the local community decides it needs to be spent. let’s hold teachers, students, and parents accountable to school and community laws regarding behavior. Let’s allow kids to experience failure in many ways such as winning and losing at sports or other competitive activities or an assignment because they did not follow directions or spend quality time on it. Then we can use those failures as teachable moments to speak about how to not feel the pain of those events and what to do the next time in the same situation. As the great philosopher (Rocky Balboa) once said,”It’s NOT about how hard you get hit (in life) but It’s about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Every kid in their own way is a winner because they are royalty. We have taught these kids they are nothing but victims of one thing or another and they DESERVE STUFF, BS. You feel good about yourself when you actually accomplish things that are meaningful, overcoming obstacles, pitfalls, and circumstances that others have allowed to make them into victims.

  2. Came across this and I think, if I’m correct, you used to teach at my primary school?!

    Anyway, (x) amount of years later and I very much enjoyed reading this having just finished my first year in Year 6. As an MFL coordinator having never studied French at high school but exposed to fantastic teaching and learning has amplified progress in modern languages substantially this year. Simply having a passion and understanding how to explain complex concepts to children in a way they understand is key. Something I’ll keep practising for the rest of my teaching career.

    Thanks! Enjoyed the read!


  3. Hiya Holly, how lovely to hear from you! I’m delighted you’re teaching too – maybe in Bolton? Find me on Twitter if you like..(@jenwillis1) I’m not on here any more xx

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