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Tes Institute

What's the difference between primary and secondary teaching?

11 Nov 22

Whether you choose to teach primary or secondary you’re embarking on a rewarding career, but the two phases offer different experiences. Here’s a guide to how they both shape up. 

So you’ve decided to apply for a teacher training course? Great. Teaching is a fantastic career where you’ll have the opportunity to enrich the lives of lots of young people.

But how do you know what phase will suit you? Although there is little to pick between them when you look at a job description, in reality, the two phases involve very different experiences and skill-sets.

When you complete your ITT course you will be awarded with qualified teacher status (QTS), and will be qualified to teach in both primary, and secondary schools. It is worth noting that the FE PGCE does not award QTS, and is designed for those who wish to teach adult learners- this will qualify you to teach FE only.

The ITT course you choose will specialise in either primary or secondary, and will prepare you to teach in your chosen phase.

There are also a small number of middle schools (for children from Year 5 to Year 8), but only 121 of these schools currently exist in the UK.

How does the school day differ for primary and secondary teachers? 

As a primary teacher you will typically be with one class all day, for the majority of your teaching time. Sometimes, however, subject specialists will lead the PE, or MFL units.

Secondary school teachers deliver lessons across the year groups, and up to sixth form if the school offers post-sixteen qualifications. You can expect to be given a form group, and you will register this group of students at least once a day.

The questions you need to ask yourself 

If you’re undecided about which phase you want to teach in, then some self-reflection is in order. To help you decide you should ask yourself some probing questions about how you feel about teaching, and what you expect from your career.

How do I feel about my subject? 

Do you feel as if you have ‘your subject’ and wouldn’t be interested in delivering lessons outside of your specialism? Or does the prospect of teaching a range of subjects sound like an appealing challenge?

Rebecca Foster, head of English at a secondary school in Salisbury, prefers the level of understanding required during key stage 3 and 4.

“I see myself very much as a subject specialist,” she says, “and like the depth secondary teaching offers”

Conversely, Niall Robinson, a teacher in Essex, enjoys the challenge of working across a range of subjects. 

“What I love about the primary curriculum is the way we’re finding connections and links between topics,” he says. “I get to use my specialism every day, but I also get to stretch myself by teaching the full range of subjects.”

How do you feel about seeing the same students all day every day? 

As a primary teacher, you become something of a custodian for your class. At secondary school however, although you will have form group, the time you spend with them will be much more limited.

Stephen Lockyer, teacher and author, enjoys the connection you can develop with a primary class. “I love that I can build a bond and relationship with them all over the year,” he explains. “It means that I know how to feed to their strengths.”

Pat Hallahan is a PE teacher from Essex, and he benefits from having some space from students when it’s most needed.

“One of the benefits of teaching secondary is that if you have a difficult class, you know that you only have an hour with them before the bell rings,” he says.  

“It allows you the time between the lessons to see the student who is misbehaving, and resolve the conflict without the complication of an on looking class.”

How do you feel about sticking to a plan? 

In primary, you are managing much larger periods of time, and there is more flexibility there to go ‘off script’. Lockyer particularly enjoys the opportunities to pick up a separate thread and run with it.

“What is really fun is joining up their learning,” he says. “Because I am the class teacher, I can create timetables that accept tangents and whims.”

Whereas in secondary, although you have less time to play with, you can enjoy the pace of a fast-moving lesson.

“One of my favourite things has to be delivering a really focussed lesson, where students have been buzzing with the enthusiasm of really knuckling down to a topic,” explains Foster.

What age are the children you picture yourself teaching?

Children, and the relationship you form with them, varies dramatically from the time they enter primary school up until they take their GCSEs.

It’s a good idea to try and get experience inside a school before you apply, and as well as talking to the teachers, you should speak to as many children as possible. It is important for you to decide who you find it easier to relate to.

“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” explains Ann Robinson, a science teacher in Essex, but I thought I would prefer primary because the children would be more keen.”

However, once Robinson spent some time in primary schools, she began to change her mind. “After a few days, I started to rethink my plan. I then arranged to go to a secondary school, and observed some science lessons. From chatting to the students whilst they were working I realised that I found teenagers a lot easier to speak to than smaller children.”

Tes Institute offer a number of courses for those wanting to get into teaching. Check out our courses for prospective teachers.

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