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.
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: