Disappearing world of the specialists

23rd December 2005 at 00:00
A wide-ranging series of progress reports by the QCA has uncovered a serious weakness in teachers' expertise. Graeme Paton and Adi Bloom report

A lack of specialist teachers in primary and secondary schools is restricting pupils' progress in key subjects, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has warned.

In a series of reports, the exams watchdog said this week that standards were under threat because of staffing weaknesses. In primaries, teachers were found to lack subject knowledge and expertise in history, geography and science. Standards in secondary subjects including geography, the sciences, ICT and religious education may also be hampered because of too few specialist teachers or timetabled slots, the QCA said.

Mick Waters, director of curriculum at the QCA, said: "There are some areas of concern, including a shortage of specialist teachers in some subjects.

This c an be a serious problem in some secondary schools, but we are encouraged by the recruitment strategies that are in place to address these shortages."

The comments came in the watchdog's 15 monitoring reports, covering 370 pages, which assess major developments across the curriculum over the past year.

The findings will be used to shape reforms of staffing, resources and testing.

The QCA highlights progress across all ages in the key subjects of English and maths, but says that weaknesses persist. This follows conclusions by Ofsted earlier this month that the teaching of English and maths was no better than satisfactory in a third of lessons.

In an evaluation of the national strategies, Ofsted said primary schools leave it too late by focusing on children in Years 5 and 6 to improve their national test scores. Inspectors said secondaries do not do enough to help pupils who arrive with poor results in English and maths, while teaching of the 3Rs across the curriculum is weak.

Echoing the findings this week, the QCA said that in maths, primary pupils'

performance had improved more quickly than in other countries, but there was evidence of widespread "teaching to the test". It also said that the transition from primary to secondary school remained a problem, although there was increased interest in maths at post-16.

In English, the QCA said there should be more focus on pupils' creativity at all ages and improvements to speaking and listening exercises are needed. It said teachers found speaking and listening the hardest area to cover effectively.

History is one of the best-taught subjects at secondary level but in primaries teaching was weaker than in most subjects, and made worse by poor in-service training.

Geography was said to be in a "critical state" in primaries. A "shortage of time, specialist staff, funding and professional development opportunities", added to its decline among secondary pupils.

At secondary level, the QCA said standards in many subjects, such as ICT, RE and citizenship were improving but their growth was being impeded by their lack of status in the timetable and the shortage of graduates opting to teach the subjects. It said RE remained one of the biggest secondary subjects taught by staff with no expert training.

In science, the QCA said that most secondary schools wanted to extend the range and scope of courses but were hindered by workload and overstretched resources. This follows conclusions in a report by Buckingham university last month that thousands of pupils are completing GCSE science with little idea about physics because of specialist teachers.

Some of the biggest concerns were reserved for modern languages, which the QCA said had suffered a "significant decline" in entries since being made optional for pupils aged 14 last year.

It said teachers in French, German and Spanish had become "understandably downhearted" by the exodus away from languages at GCSE level and had to fill their timetables by tutoring in other subjects.

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