The primary pull

You may be passionate about your specialist subject, but secondary teaching isn't your only option. Nick Morrison speaks to teachers who have made the transition to primary, and find it every bit as rewarding

For many teachers, the decision to teach in a secondary school is almost automatic. From inspiring passion for their favourite subject, to wanting to stimulate inquiring teenage minds, they are looking for something only secondary schools can provide.

But what about those who have made a mistake? Or fallen out of love with secondary teaching? They may not want to stay in secondary education, but they still want to teach. Is a move to primary straightforward? Will they be able to cope? Or are they just choosing the easier option?

Karen Garner says there is nothing easy about teaching primary. After taking an English degree, secondary seemed the obvious choice, but three years in she was feeling disillusioned. "You realise that Year 10 bottom set is never going to share your passion, and because it's a compulsory subject, older children can turn off.

"Timetabling meant I was teaching the same lesson to Year 8s three times a week, and it just killed it for me," she says.

After quitting her job, Karen started supply, but this time decided to try primary, and soon discovered what she had been missing.

"I had to do a lot of reading to ensure my subject knowledge was at an appropriate level, but I found it far more rewarding than any day I ever had at secondary school."

Karen, 37, has now been teaching at Harefield Primary in Southampton for five years, and says the attitude of some secondary teachers towards their primary counterparts is entirely misplaced.

"There is a definite intellectual snobbery, and secondary teachers think their subject specialism makes them a better teacher, but primary teachers have more breadth of knowledge and greater understanding of the curriculum," she says.

John Howson, recruitment analyst and The TES Magazine columnist, says advice on how to move from secondary to primary teaching is the single biggest subject raised at his TES online job clinics.

"If you're fed up teaching adolescents but still enjoy teaching, the notion of having one class rather than lots of different ones may well seem a better use of your skills," he says. The introduction in English primary schools of 10 per cent non-contact time in 2005 has made them more attractive, and competition for leadership grade posts is less in primaries. "You don't get many people wanting to move the other way," he says.

Professor Howson has called in the past for the introduction of certification to teach specific age groups, rather than a system where all you need is to find a school willing to take you. But he says his advice for anyone looking at changing is always to research it thoroughly, including the prospects of getting a job. And he says heads will be looking for evidence the move is for the children's, not the teacher's, benefit.

David Tuck, vice president of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), says the key to switching from secondary to primary is being able to build up a relationship with the children. "Good teachers will be able to make that transition, but you do not deal with reception children the same way you would deal with sixth formers," he says.

Teachers will also have to contend with moving to being a generalist rather than a specialist, and with having the same class all the time. This can make primary teaching a lonely profession, says David Fann, head of Sherwood Primary in Preston and chairman of the NAHT's primary committee.

"You are with a lot younger children and the level of interaction is much lower than at high school," he says. He adds that he would be reluctant to take on a teacher straight from high school, and would want to see evidence of a commitment to primary teaching.

Jo Dicker says she has the best of both worlds. She spent two years as a secondary maths teacher, but for the past four years, she has taught in Hugh Sexey Middle School, a 9-13 school in Wedmore, Somerset. A middle school means she can still teach her specialism, but doesn't face the same behaviour problems she encountered in secondary.

"You do have to pitch things differently but I haven't really changed the way I teach," says Jo, 27. "I also spend less of my time on behaviour management and more on actually teaching."

She also believes she is teaching the most interesting age group. "They are not so young that they're hanging on to you and not so old that they're not bothered," she says. "They do most growing up at middle school age: they come to us as children and leave as young adults. To me it is the perfect age range."


Emma Lock has taught every year group from reception to Year 11, but that wasn't her intention. When she decided she wanted to be a teacher, her languages degree made secondary seem the obvious choice.

After four years teaching French in a secondary school, she left to have a baby, and when she returned to work, she started doing supply, including some in primaries.

"I got a taste of it and realised that's what I wanted to do," she says.

"I'd done a week in a primary as part of my PGCE, and I much preferred that. It had been in my mind."

Emma, 33, eventually started to do long-term supply in a primary school, which led to a job at The Grange Infant School in Shrewsbury, where she job shares, teaching two and a half days a week.

"I like working with the younger children and having the complete range of subjects. You can link the subjects together, and you get to know the children as a whole. I find it really rewarding."

She feels she lost out by not doing a primary PGCE, but is quick to reject suggestions primary is an easy life.

"Primary is much more exhausting. You have got the same children day after day and you're teaching every subject and sweeping up in between," she says. "I've also found more challenging behaviour than in secondary schools and there are more techniques you can use with teenagers. Some of the younger ones shout and run off."

She has also had the chance to use her language skills - teaching French vocabulary during registration.

Emma occasionally has pangs for her former life. She says: "I do miss it and I would go back for a week, just to remind myself what it was like and show myself I could still do it, but I much prefer primary."

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