Knowing your subject.

I’m a year four teacher who studied philosophy for my undergraduate degree. Since then I gained a PGCE, and then a Masters in Education. I firmly believe that all children deserve to be taught a knowledge-rich curriculum with clearly defined content. Over the last few years I’ve worked hard to make this a reality in my school and have shared more widely how our profession might make it happen.

Teaching Apprenticeships have been in the news since the Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, announced this new route into teaching. Many commentators on education, including people who I really respect, have expressed serious misgivings about the proposal. In fact it’s stronger than this, most have dismissed the idea in principle, stating that teaching should remain a profession in which an undergraduate degree must remain a prerequisite for teacher training (BEds notwithstanding, which of course also allow teachers to train without already having a degree).

The principal complaint seems to be that being an excellent teacher involves deep subject knowledge, and that this is only possible by immersing yourself in your subject via an undergraduate degree. I would strongly agree with the former part of this complaint, but reject the latter proposition.

Why? Let me walk you through my day:

08.30-09.40 Reading

We’ll be continuing to read a simplified version of Romeo and Juliet, focussing on Mercutio’s death. I never studied Shakespeare at university. In fact, I didn’t even take English at A level, and so the last time I actively studied a Shakespeare play was in Year 11, when we read Hamlet.

09.40-10.35 Writing

We’re studying Macbeth and will be writing a newspaper article reporting King Duncan’s murder. See above.

11.00-12.00 Maths

We’re adding and subtracting four-digit numbers with regrouping. I did no maths at university. I did take it for AS level, but gave up before the course finished. I wouldn’t recognise an academic essay on maths if it crossed the road and punched me in the face.

13.00 History

We’re studying medieval monarchs, looking at the major kings and queens from 1066-1603. I did take a history A level, but never studied British monarchs (We focussed on the Second World War and the Russian Revolution). I somehow got through the whole of my school career never learning about any British monarchs, not even the Tudors.

14.00 French

Someone else takes my class for this, thank god.

14.30 Phonics Intervention

I hadn’t even head the word phonics until I was 25.

14.45 Story Time

I don’t remember being asked to read children’s novels out loud (including doing all the voices) at university.

15.15 Home time.

Perhaps it is different for primary. Perhaps the route is less appropriate for secondary teachers. But when I ran a poll on twitter to ask exactly this (which admittedly only had a few hundred responses) the majority felt that an apprenticeship would be inappropriate for either phase, with 10% saying primary only and 7% saying secondary only.

I don’t believe that the route would be more appropriate in primary because I don’t believe that strong subject knowledge is any less relevant. But I also believe that a large part of what makes a great teacher is a bunch of stuff other than subject knowledge, and I broadly believe that this stuff is best learnt in classrooms, watching experts, breaking down what they do and practising each of those parts.

Now some may argue that it was gaining my degree that has led to my attitude towards scholarly pursuit or the esteem that I hold the best that has been ‘thought and said’. But I don’t buy that. I went to university because I already valued learning and had a thirst for knowledge. In fact many folks I met at uni wished to disabuse me of such lofty notions and I was surprised at how little many read, and how uninterested most were when it came to seriously discussing our subject.

What it comes down to, for me, is two central questions.

1. Does gaining an undergraduate degree guarantee subject knowledge in your chosen specialism?

No.

2. Is it possible for somebody to become an excellent teacher without possessing an undergraduate degree before starting their training?

Yes.

Of course, the devil is in the detail and my enthusiasm towards the actual proposal will be proportional to the rigour and coherence of the programme of study set out for the prospective trainees. We don’t know what that will be, yet, and until we do I’ll remain open and receptive to the idea in principle.

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