Subject Amateurs

Do teachers have the subject knowledge to actually teach?

Nothing gets a teacher’s back up more than being told they don’t know something. It makes their blood boil.

This is what Lord Winston has done by saying that the basic science knowledge of many primary school teachers isn’t up to the job.

He could be accused of making a sweeping generalisation but he’s not wide of the mark. Ofsted, in their 2019/2020 report, say that,

Subject knowledge among teachers is critical. Our research found this is more of a challenge in primary schools, where teachers have to teach across the curriculum.

For years I did science CPD around the country and was always surprised at what little science knowledge there was out there. Teachers, subject specialists and so-called ‘consultants’ didn’t know much science at all, even the ‘basics’.

But this shouldn’t really surprise us. To be a primary teacher you don’t need any specialist science background and if you do a PGCE then within a year you are teaching science as if you have all the answers. It’s frightening but teachers at primary level are flung into classrooms with a teaspoon knowledge…I should know, I was one of them. You are expected to be a Swiss Army knife or  a Johannes factotum – Johnny do-it-all which is just plain crazy.

I started my career knowing lots about a few subjects but very little about the rest of the curriculum and within a couple of years I was a subject leader for a subject I have fragile knowledge of. I’m not alone either – thousands of teachers are subject leaders in subjects they have little or no expertise in.

Lord Winston has a high profile and what he says gets noticed so it’s good that his comments have hit the headlines. He raised his concerns recently in Parliament after he observed a teacher telling a pupil they were wrong for saying nitrogen is the most common gas in the atmosphere. This is basic stuff and he has every reason to be outraged. This isn’t a training issue – just very basic science that a teacher should know. Lord Winston said,

The problem is that the basic scientific knowledge of so many excellent primary school teachers is woefully inadequate.

When the science SATs were scrapped then science knowledge and understanding was swept to the side of the curriculum. SATs get some bad press but what they do is help funnel and focus – they generate discussion about a subject and a lot of ground gets covered. If science isn’t on the radar anymore then science content is not prioritised. Despite all the talk of STEM and our desperate need to recruit in this area, science isn’t the high profile subject it once was.

Education minister Lord Agnew accepts “that primary school teachers have to be generalists across a wide range of subjects.”

And this is the problem – primary teachers are mostly generalists and so cannot possibly be subject experts across the curriculum.

Most teachers, if they are being honest, would say they don’t know enough to competently cover the curriculum to mastery level yet complete ’emerging, developing, secure, exceeding and mastery’ tick-boxes for children. It seems to me that we need to use the same for teachers themselves.

Surgery needs to be performed by surgeons – and teachers need to recognise their generalist skills aren’t good for surgery situations where the stakes are high.

You don’t necessarily have to be a specialist to teach at primary but you do have to be savvy and know more the basics. You have to know a lot about everything but just how feasible is that?

It’s a rare breed of teacher who can be both a generalist and a specialist.

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