Why we need subject specialists in primary

This article was originally published in Teach Primary, which is a wonderful magazine that is well worth subscribing to. The other articles are all better than this one. This topic became the subject for my recent talk at Pedagoo, where I received really interesting and insightful feedback from both primary and secondary teachers. I’ll blog about that soon.

Being a primary school teacher is easy. It’s basically just glorified babysitting. Of course, you need to learn how to deliver phonics in both a discrete and contextual manner, but apart from that it’s easy.

Oh, and obviously you also need to understand how to help children conceptualise mathematical operations, moving them from manipulatives to pictorial and ultimately formal representations. And then I suppose you need to know how to know how to break down the implicit components of dozens of writing styles and explicate these to young children. But that’s pretty much it.

Oh and French. You also need to know French. And how to read, perform and analyse music…

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. The expectations recently placed upon primary schools teachers are laughably unrealistic. In September, the think tank Policy Exchange published a report warning of an impending “perfect storm” of challenges to primary education, including: a fall in funding to local authorities; the introduction of a new national curriculum; the removal of levels with no replacement; and tougher attainment descriptors alongside an overall raising of floor standards.

Although it may seem like a distant memory now, it wasn’t too long ago that an extension task was to ‘read quietly’, and marking meant lining up at your teacher’s desk to receive a single big tick at the bottom of your page. But times have moved on, and this is no longer acceptable. A renewed emphasis on subject knowledge places those of us who ‘teach children, not subjects’ in a difficult position. It’s simply not possible to master Mesopotamian history, writing computer programs using code, and Geographical Information Systems.

However, I don’t believe that any of these changes are a Bad Thing. Young children have an insatiable thirst for knowledge combined with a superhuman capacity to absorb information. Scientists call it the period of maximum neurological plasticity, I call it witchcraft – but it’s there. In the nineteenth century a four year old Francis Galton wrote to his sister explaining that he could ‘read any English book…say all the Latin Substantives and Adjectives and active verbs, besides 52 lines of Latin poetry, I can cast any sum in addition and multiply by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11…I read French a little…’

Whilst teaching the stone age recently, I found myself stumped on numerous occasions by elementary questions on the topic. It was embarrassing, and I couldn’t help but feel like I was letting them down by excusing myself with a pathetic ‘Let’s look that up together later.” Rather than expanding horizons, I had actually become the ceiling to the children’s learning.

They deserve better. They deserve someone with a knowledge deep enough to smash back volleys of questions from curious minds with balletic grace. I’ve seen this in my school, because we’re lucky enough to have subject specialists for computing, PE and music. The teaching that the children receive in those subjects is far superior to anything that I could offer, because they are learning from masters of those subjects, with deep technical knowledge from the beginner to expert.

If this can be offered for foundation subjects, why wouldn’t we follow the same process for English and mathematics? By the time children reach upper key stage two, the expectations for these subjects are tough. You need to have a pretty firm grasp of the subjunctive mood to be able to teach it well. The current model of expecting all teachers to be a jack of all trades, master of none is woefully inefficient.

Here’s an alternative model. All primary teachers spend a year learning the basics of planning, questioning, assessment and behaviour management. They also are given a solid grounding in literacy, phonics, numeracy and science. That’s it for primary Initial Teach Training, and would lead to QTS.

But after qualifying, formally assessed and accredited training should continue for another three years, during which time teachers are expected to specialise. This could be in EYFS, a foundation subject, or further training in one of the core subjects. Schools would then be expected to recruit to ensure that all specialisms are covered, and specialist would become subject leaders, responsible for their respective curriculum and all of the teaching at upper key stage two (unless their specialism was EYFS).

Such a model would not only ensure children receive expert teaching in every area of the curriculum, it would also allow real professional development and identity for teachers in primary. So rather than the perfect storm becoming an impending disaster, it could put the wind into our sails and take us to new heights, creating schools where each child is truly taught by a master.

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