There is a huge difference in the amount of subject specialist teaching between prep schools and state primary schools.
Subject specialism is a major difference in the educational provision of prep schools and state primary schools. It’s up there with class sizes and facilities and is trumpeted in the prospectus of practically every prep school.
It’s becoming more of a selling point for academies and free schools too. Why?
The benefit of subject specialist teaching
Unlike secondary schools, where subject specialists are the norm, the traditional model for primary schools is a form teacher who teaches all subjects. A specialist in teaching primary age children maybe, but a generalist across the many subjects that they teach. And this model is consistent across different schools for very young children, in nursery, Reception and Year 1 and 2.
The benefit of a subject specialist, on the other hand, is that their deeper and broader subject knowledge can enliven a subject more than a generalist. And schools may also point out that moving between classrooms for that specialist teaching brings developmental benefits too.
How much specialist teaching is there?
There is a big difference. 63% of state primary schools offer no specialist teaching at all, according to the 2000+ state primary schools that Schoolsmith follows. The average is 0.6 subjects. 35% of state primary schools have specialists for one, two or three subjects.
Contrast this with prep schools where an average of seven subjects are specialist-taught for at least a year through to Year 6. 36% have specialist teaching for most or all subjects at some stage.
When does subject specialism start?
At state primary schools, specialist teaching, usually sport and/or music are introduced early, usually at Reception. The third most likely specialist subject, a modern language, might be introduced in Year 3.
At a typical prep school, there might be three or four specialist-taught subjects from the outset. Usually, they’ll be sport (PE/games), music and a foreign language. Art and computing specialism can sometimes start in Reception, similarly drama and dance.
There’s a step up in specialist teaching from Year 3 when art, DT, computing and science switch from the class teacher. And then another ratchet around Year 5 when those 36% of prep schools transition completely from generalist teaching.
What is a subject specialist teacher?
A subject specialist usually refers to someone who has studied the subject, or a related subject, to degree level. 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.
But there can be some variability in the use of the term.
What it is not is a teacher whose qualification is to co-ordinate the school’s provision in the subject. Nor is it a teacher whose principal role is as a form teacher. Watch out too for the PPA cover teacher in primary schools who may or may not be a specialist in the subjects they relieve form teachers with.
Subjects taught by specialists in prep and state primary schools
Here’s a different way to show the disparity between state primary and prep schools. Whereas 94-95% of prep schools have teachers teaching only sport, music or languages, for state primaries it’s 22%, 19% and 12% respectively.
Equally as stark are the differences for specialist teaching in art, computing and science. An average of 60% of prep schools compares to an average of 3% for state primaries.
So where does English and maths specialism appear? Class teachers teach maths and English for 50% of the time. They may or may not (usually not) be specialists in maths or English. But they are used to teaching the subjects within the guidelines of a teaching scheme and the National Curriculum. Which lends weight to the argument that a good teacher of a subject doesn’t have to be a specialist in it.
Why doesn’t every school have specialist teachers?
A specialist for a number of subjects as well as form teachers is expensive. Schools more likely to have specialist teachers for Years 1 to 6 are;
- Larger schools; with more pupils to fund the specialist.
- Members of multi-academy trusts with pooled teaching resources.
- Prep schools with an older pupil profile especially those that teach to age 13.
You may also have though that junior divisions of all-through schools might have had more specialist teaching. After all, specialists are already employed at the senior school, and the schools have the facilities. This study, however, shows no significant difference in the averages for all-through schools and standalone schools.
Which schools are less likely to have specialist teachers? Smaller schools. And schools with a younger pupil profile, weighted towards pre-prep and infants.
Specialists in state secondary schools
As a corollary, not all teaching in secondary schools is delivered by subject specialists. According to the DoE’s School Workforce Census for state secondary schools, non-specialists account for a significant amount of teaching.
The Census headline number is that specialists account for 87% of the teaching hours of the English, maths, science, history, geography, and modern languages (EBacc subjects). Which means that 13% of lessons are delivered by non-specialists. And there are some surprisingly low numbers in the mix.
- Mathematics 87% specialist-taught
- Physics 72%
- Engineering 20%
- Computing 54%
- ICT 68%
- DT 78%
- Other Languages 60%
- French 72%