On the map - Subject knowledge - No end to shortfall in subject expertise

20th May 2011 at 01:00

What do you need to teach a subject in a secondary school? Surely the answer is obvious: subject knowledge, and a teacher preparation course. Strictly speaking, neither of those is true, but at least the second is generally regarded as important, even if the Government cannot be clear on what such a course actually looks like. But as anyone who has changed from secondary to primary teaching (or vice versa) knows, qualified teacher status in England allows a teacher to teach anything to anyone.

This loophole (or gaping chasm) in professional standing suits the Government and heads. But imagine going to a lawyer over a small claim and being told the person dealing with your case was an expert in criminal law, or being referred by a GP to a specialist with expertise unrelated to your condition. Where does general knowledge need to become specific?

According to recent Department for Education figures, nearly one in four of those teaching maths in secondary schools has no post-A-level qualification in the subject; the figure is nearly one in three for physics, and rises to more than four out of five in media studies. Even in combined and general science, one in eight teachers has no science qualification beyond an A-level.

When there is a shortage of teachers, anyone will do, but don't tell the parents - and even now, with no shortages, the odd bits of timetables need to be filled in with whoever is free. Plus, some SEN groups are taught in different groupings but still show up in these figures.

So, 100 per cent specialist teaching is always going to be an unlikely scenario. But two out of three ICT teachers with no qualification? How can this happen? With new subjects, such as ICT and citizenship, governments mandate their appearance on the curriculum before ensuring there are sufficient fully-qualified teachers.

If an agreed level of subject knowledge for every curriculum area could be determined, certification could be withheld from those who did not possess adequate knowledge, and schools could be required to help them acquire it as a part of professional development. Even so, subject knowledge alone may not be enough; teachers also need to know how to deliver the subject effectively.

What is certain is that we will not deliver a world-class education without properly qualified teachers. And the same goes for reception and KS2 teachers as much as for subject teachers in secondary schools. Oh, and media studies: there is no training path for these teachers, so no easy way they can acquire QTS. It is time for a thorough look at teacher preparation, and not just the standards as currently being discussed by the Coates review into teaching standards.

John Howson is director of Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education.

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