Subject specialist teaching brings expertise to a classroom. But subjects aren’t the only specialism.
When someone introduces themselves as, say, a science teacher I would naturally assume that they had some sort of qualification in teaching and some sort of qualification in science. After all, teachers should be qualified and specialists in the subjects they teach. Shouldn’t they? Specialist teaching? Well, it’s not as simple as that.
Is the teacher qualified?
About 4% of teachers in state schools do not have Qualified Teacher Status (QTS). The number is expected to rise as laws were relaxed in 2012 to allow schools to recruit teachers with “special skills and experience”. Those in favour of the new laws argue that by widening the teacher recruitment pool pupils can benefit from people with “real world” experience. Critics claim that it undermines the formal training needed to teach properly. In independent schools, the number of non-QTS teachers is possibly much higher. Independent schools have always been able to recruit teachers without Qualified Teacher Status. There are a significant number of independent faith schools where the majority of teaching is actually delivered by parents. The special skill and experience presumably being adherence to the faith.
Arguing what makes a good teacher is not the point of this post. Of course, it is possible to be a good teacher without a teaching qualification just as it is possible to be a bad teacher with a teaching qualification. A small number of people with special skills and experience is probably good for the mix. But on average a teacher is more likely to be good at their job if they are trained, qualified and are part of a professional network, just as in any profession.
What is subject specialist teaching?
So let’s turn to subject specialists. The benefit of a subject specialist teacher is that they bring deeper and broader subject knowledge. So they should be able to enliven the subject more than the teacher who simply follows the curriculum.
So far so good. That’s why specialist teaching is popular with parents. So it’s not surprising that academies, free schools and independent schools are keen to highlight the facility if they offer it. But beware. The definition of subject specialist teaching is also somewhat, well, variable.
It can refer to teaching by someone who has studied the subject, or a related subject, at university. Or someone who has been a practitioner for a good number of years; a practitioner in, say, sport, art, journalism, speaking their foreign mother tongue, science and so on. Sometimes specialist teachers are simply those who co-ordinate the school’s provision in the subject. Or maybe they are specialist for little reason other than they have taught the curriculum for years.
Subject specialist teaching in secondary schools
In secondary schools there is a greater need for specialist subject teaching than in primary schools. In particular as pupils gear up for national exams such as GCSEs or A Levels. Statistics from the English Department of Education suggest that 75% of state secondary teachers have a degree in a subject related to the subject they teach. Or, 25% don’t. Another study confirms that teachers without a relevant degree are teaching 24% of state secondary maths lessons and 21% of state secondary English lessons. And another suggested that non-specialists are teaching between 17% and 20% of all lessons in state secondary schools.
Offering subject specialist teaching is expensive, and large schools certainly benefit from their scale. They can offer more subject specialists because they have more pupils studying each subject. That is why secondary schools tend to be much larger than primary schools. Smaller schools simply don’t have the funds to afford a specialist teacher in a subject that less than, say, ten pupils will study.
Subject specialist teaching in primary schools
The problem is more acute for primary schools. Pupils in a typical primary school will be single classroom based, with a form teacher teaching most subjects. Larger schools may be able to justify the expense of specialist teachers. Some smart schools employ subject specialists as form teachers and rotate them according to the lesson.
Some schools which have both primary and secondary departments try to introduce specialist teaching by having the secondary school subject specialists teach the primary school pupils for certain subjects. But they aren’t primary pupil specialists so there is a doubt as to how effective that is.
Where there is specialist teaching, there is variation in the number of subjects taught by specialists. Also in the age at which specialist teaching is introduced. It is relatively common to find PE/sports specialists introduced at infant school. Similarly with music, art and a foreign language from Year 3. It isn’t until Year 5 that a significant number of schools offer specialist teaching in maths, English and science.
Many would argue that in primary schools, the most relevant specialism is the actual skill of teaching primary age pupils. It is different to teaching 11-16 and 16-18 year olds. The argument goes that primary school teachers can deliver effectively all or most of the content of primary school subject curricula, only because of their skill of age appropriate teaching. Deeper knowledge of subjects beyond the demands of the primary curricula is nice to have but not absolutely necessary.
Whichever side of the arguments you take, one thing is for sure. When someone presents themselves as a subject teacher, the nature of their qualifications for both shouldn’t be assumed. Though it does make for a more interesting conversation.