Don't play second fiddle

26th June 2015 at 01:00

Ever wonder if the subject you teach is just a bit, well, second class? I mean, it's not your fault; your degree is your degree, and you teach what you know, don't you? And, of course, you like your subject, maybe even love it a bit, so when you started out you didn't think anything other than that it was a joy to know about, and therefore a joy to teach.

Then you get to a school and you start to notice things. Little things at first. Most obviously you get told by the strongest willed of your jaspers that what you teach isn't a real subject. But that's cool; they're looking for an in. You can't make them all love it, and we play the long game and we play the numbers.

But then more details emerge: things your teacher training didn't cover. Children are removed from your lessons so that they can catch up with their coursework, their homework, or even just to revise for other subjects. When you complain that this was done without your permission, you're asked to go along with it because "they really need that subject" or, more diplomatically, "they need the grade in this to achieve what they want to achieve". The implication is clear.

Patterns start to emerge. You realise that your timetable allocation is minuscule compared with some subjects; pupils tell you they can't come to your revision class because they've been told they "have to" attend another subject by senior staff; funding is allocated to catch-up tutors in some subjects but not others. Your expected student progress has been, for years, dependent on a baseline in another subject. When you look at the A-level blocks, your subject doesn't appear, even for application. And when you compare department budgets, you wonder why some are gilded and some threadbare. The penny drops: you teach a second-class subject.

A lot of schools do this. To be fair, they don't do it without a bit of persuasion - the kind that relies on brass knuckles. The pressure to produce key metrics of success - English, maths and science, for example - has led to the kind of disproportionate weighting usually reserved for a mattress supporting an elephant and a duck.

What's breathtaking is the normalisation of this culture. Staff, frequently ones directly for the chop should the Ofsted fairy frown, will talk about their core subjects as if they were biblical canon. They'll barely understand your problem when you try to defend your budget, your timetable.

But that's the trade-off. If schools want teachers who a) care about their subject and b) are expert in it, they're going to end up with people who won't stand by and watch their subject be placed on the shelf.

That is, if it's professionals they're after - some schools seem to be looking for mere machines to pass as many success metrics as possible.

But if you believe in holistic education, or the academic adventure of imparting a cultural and scientific heritage, then check the terms and conditions before you apply. And if you find a school where your subject is second class, look for one where it isn't. Because not all schools deserve their teachers.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London and director of the ResearchED conference

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