Know it all?

Training in one subject and working in another has potential pitfalls, but it can work brilliantly. Hannah Frankel talks to those who are teaching outside of their degree
10th October 2008, 1:00am


Know it all?

Being pushed in at the deep end has two possible outcomes: sinking or swimming. And more than half of teachers - taking subjects they are not fully qualified in - are finding out the hard way which category they fit into. Just 43 per cent of secondary teachers have degrees in the subjects they are teaching, according to a survey from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). Although this has risen from 33 per cent in 2002, that still leaves approximately 200,000 secondary teachers potentially without the knowledge base and confidence to stretch pupils.

Inflating the “non-specialist” figures are shortage subjects - particularly maths. One in four maths teachers in England has no relevant degree in maths, although 75 per cent have a post A-level qualification of some sort, the NFER report found. Scotland is much stricter about teacher qualifications; all secondary school teachers must be qualified in their chosen subject north of the border.

At Failsworth School in Manchester, just one of its 14 maths teachers has a degree in the subject. Damian Griffith, 31, did not get beyond a grade C at maths GCSE. But he does have a business studies degree, plus a masters in international banking, economics and finance. He also had a successful marketing career before he started a graduate teacher programme four years ago.

“Not having a degree in maths hasn’t been a problem,” Damian says, “partly because I have a lot of transferable subject skills. But because I qualified on the job and was late into teaching, I’ve always had a strong desire to improve my subject knowledge and learn more.”

He applied and received a grant of pound;6,000 from the National Centre for the Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM), which offers subject specific continued professional development. The grant allowed the entire department to attend a one-day training session based on Kagan Structures, an American model that requires pupils to discuss findings and take more responsibility for their learning.

Following the training, teachers aim to use at least one “structure” per lesson. So, for example, instead of getting the class to work its way through a list of maths questions individually, pupils are placed in groups of four, where they answer maths problems alone before comparing and discussing their results in the group. They reach a consensus before a representative explains their answer to the class.

“I was constantly being told by pupils that they hated maths, but I wanted to find out what they did like,” says Damian. “They wanted to sit next to friends and work in groups and the Kagan Structures allow them to do that. The pupils learnt through exploring and talking through their misconceptions.”

Maths teachers at Failsworth now meet once a week to work collaboratively in pairs and plan units of work based on what they have learnt. They have noticed pupils are on task for much longer when using the structures and the Year 7s have performed better than they did last year; those scoring level 5 or above in maths has increased by more than 10 per cent.

Damian says: “It’s boosted staff morale. We haven’t changed what we teach, but it’s added to our toolbox in terms of how we teach.”

In primary schools, teachers must be proficient in every subject, but many have not studied core subjects beyond GCSE - just 227 of the 10,000 graduates on last year’s primary teacher training course had a maths or science degree. Further training is arriving in schools, thanks to a maths review by Sir Peter Williams in June. Selected primary teachers will receive Pounds 8,000 over five years if they train to become one of 13,000 new school-based maths specialists.

Helen Richardson, the head at John Blow Primary School in Collingham, Nottinghamshire, used a grant from the NCETM to pay for supply cover while staff from four local schools met regularly to plan, deliver and review maths lessons in pairs, emphasising thinking skills.

“The teachers and teaching assistants welcomed the chance to talk through lessons with someone from a different setting,” Helen says. After planning, the pairs of teachers taught together in each other’s schools - to build and change their approach in response to different pupil ages and abilities.

“Being a specialist isn’t enough when teaching. You’ve got to unpick maths and make it fun and accessible for the pupils. It’s a simple project but it worked,” says Helen. A similar exercise, focusing on writing, is starting this term.

Maths is not the only subject lacking specialist providers. Science is also struggling. Many teachers, particularly in primary schools, lack the confidence to teach science well because they lack subject knowledge and training, according to Success in Science, a report by Ofsted.

David Hardy, 41, has taught science for 12 years, but as a modular course. Since September last year, Falinge Park High School in Rochdale has taught the sciences separately. Now David is teaching chemistry, even though he has a biology degree. “I’m reasonably confident about teaching the bulk of the chemistry syllabus,” David says. “It’s just the practical side and some of the theory at key stage 4 that I needed some help with.”

Falinge Park paid for David to go on a two-day training chemistry course for non-specialists at York University, provided by the Science Learning Centres. The first day of the course introduced the teachers to practical chemistry demonstrations and dispelled some myths.

“There were a whole load of experiments that I’d been told had been banned,” David says. “But they’re perfectly safe as long as you know what you’re doing. I’ve since completed several thermite reaction experiments that are great fun and explosive that I’d never dared do before.”

The second day added theory to the mix and offered the teachers more depth of knowledge, plus ideas for how to make chemistry accessible to pupils. Now, as a matter of course, David discusses schemes of work with the rest of the faculty and exchanges best practice.

Courses like this give teachers “the confidence, knowledge and experience to teach science in an inspiring way”, according to Anna Gawthorp from the Science Learning Centres, “even if they felt shaky about the subject to begin with”.

Sarah Maughan, from the NCETM, agrees. “Maths teachers need to feel supported,” she says. “They need appropriate content knowledge, but also a feel for the maths-specific pedagogies that drive up teaching and learning standards.

“The most effective CPD starts with excellent training, but it has to be sustainable. It needs joint planning, teaching and time for reflection with colleagues.”

Subject specific CPD


Maths: For UK-based Kagan courses visit



General CPD opportunitites

The Training and Development Agency (TDA) provides early professional development opportunities at

- For general CPD opportunities, including the TDA’s Science Technology Engineering and Maths programme, visit

- The Teacher Training Resource Bank helps trainee and serving teachers stretch their knowledge base. See

- Join a subject association that can offer specific training:


Percentage of teachers in England without post A-level qualifications in the subjects they teach:

Maths - 25

English - 21

Combined science - 19

French - 23

German - 28

Spanish - 40

Design and technology - 47

ICT - 59

Business studies - 50

History - 24

RE - 53

Geography - 27

Music - 13

Drama - 44

Art and design - 22

PE - 17

Citizenship - 95.

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