Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last year or so, you’ll be aware that the Ofsted framework is changing. I’ll admit, I wouldn’t need an Ofsted framework to force me to look at the substance of curriculum or to ensure that school culture develops the (scholarly) whole child because I already believe in it wholeheartedly. This is the evidence informed approach that, for me, boils down to thinking about what the children are thinking about at all times of the school day, including during transitions. It’s an interesting thought process that seems to add clarity to my continual questioning of accepted ‘best practice’ or ideology and I am aware that my perspective seems radically different to the majority of educators. In this blog, I’m going to make the case for hiring subject specialists to teach in primary schools and I’m hoping, fingers crossed, that school leaders will actively seek out and entice those subject specialists to perhaps switch from working in secondary schools to working in primary schools.
What I have found is that I can tell when an older KS2 cohort has been taught by a subject specialist. I remember one cohort a few years ago who were all super keen on history and also seemed to know a lot about the scientific aspects of engineering. I knew their former teachers: one was a historian and one was a former engineer. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Sure, they were also very experienced teachers who knew what was what when it came to behaviour management, but when the baton was passed to me and I taught those children any aspect of history or science, their brains lit up and they were making more connections compared with the cohort I had taught before them who had not been taught by those two teachers. When any child answered, it was almost like I could hear the typical words and sentence structures of these two teachers and it was uncanny.
I’m pretty lucky in that I have a few subject specialisms to offer, but I would say my significant offering to that particular cohort was music: I took them on a journey from vicious hatred of music lessons to driving their parents mad by repeatedly playing the Star Wars theme tune on the recorder and generally loving reading, playing and performing music on both the ukulele and the recorder. It was a very special moment when the entire class got to dress up (the boys all wore tuxedos and the girls all wore ball gowns) and perform in the evening music recital which had hitherto been the preserve of those children who were being taught by the peripatetic music teachers.
The reason those children didn’t like music initially was that they didn’t have much knowledge and could only play three notes on a recorder, so they were very, very frustrated. They wanted to experience success and I knew that what they needed was not to be fobbed off with opportunities to be experimental or feel good in the moment, but to be given real knowledge (both know-how and know-that) and the opportunities to rehearse that knowledge to the point of automaticity. And then they could get experimental. The whole process also really helped to develop their scholarly dispositions because of the very demanding expectations to concentrate. They also suddenly became very supportive of each other as they saw how this ‘everybody on the same bus’ approach enabled the children with SEN to shine and for the nerds to be humbled because ‘banana-fingers’ tended to happen when you were too confident and tried to rush ahead! Who knew that a knowledge-rich curriculum coupled to evidence-informed pedagogy could also be good for mental health and social skills, eh?
Based on the above personal experiences and from what I have read about the importance of knowledge, the ideal, I believe, is for there to be a balance of subject specialists in primary schools so that as children go up through the year groups, they benefit from the sparkle of subject expertise in each subject area. What I found is that both children and their parents then looked forward to being in my class the next year because it was like the ‘extra special thing’ for that year group. And yes, before you ask, of course I taught all the other subjects too. What you also get as a bonus when hiring a subject specialist teacher, is someone who can lead that subject for the school. They can ensure the curriculum is well sequenced and that includes providing advice on teaching, resources, planning and assessment. What I have found is that even when teachers are given access to a well-resourced and sequenced curriculum and know that knowledge needs to be imparted, there is still a big need for CPD on evidence-informed pedagogy and short-term planning.
A typical pedagogical problem is when a teacher is adapted to constantly trying to win the attention of children by teaching through asking endless discovery questions or through planning for what children are going to be doing and feeling rather than what children are going to be thinking. There are a few reasons why a teacher might have adapted this way that I won’t go into now*, but for school leaders up and down the country, I would say this latter aspect of planning for what children are going to think about rather than what they are going to do or feel is but one of many subtle yet dramatic shifts in approach that needs to happen to put the substance of the curriculum at the heart of what we do. I should also point out that I am a big believer in second chances and the importance of winning hearts and minds first and foremost when it comes to staff development. Teachers are adults, not toddlers, therefore the logic and purpose of any change or initiative, which should be all about what is best for curating the memories of children rather than pleasing Ofsted or consultants/advisers, needs to be explained and who better to explain that than a subject specialist who is passionate about their subject? Likewise, typical misconceptions and worries that teachers might have** can be thought about before they arise.
Over the years, I’ve heard a common argument against hiring and promoting subject specialists which is that these subject specialists were somehow born naturally good at their subject and therefore don’t understand how young children might struggle. The thinking is that they would then either frighten children off that subject or bore them with ‘dry’ rote learning. This is an accusation most often leveled against mathematicians and there are probably a fair few mathematicians up and down the country who may have been prevented from become primary subject leads in their schools as a result. I’m hoping that this will also change as the new framework moves in and leaders realise just how valuable their primary teachers with degrees in maths, history, sciences, languages are.
Subject specialists love their subject and tend to foster a love of learning that subject in the children they teach. Let’s give them those opportunities to feel valued and bring extra sparkle to children’s education.
Who’s with me?
*A very interesting metric that could be developed by inspectors/advisers could measure the degree to which teachers have adapted in this way. What it would show is (for experienced teachers) how the culture and leadership of the school is behind the scenes or (for NQTs) what they’d been taught and inculcated on their ITT course.
**A typical misconception is that you can’t have, for example, a bit of drama in a history lesson.