Pros and cons of specialists in primaries

29th September 2006 at 01:00
I am starting to wonder if the use of more specialist teachers in primary schools would benefit pupils and staff.

This year I am teaching music and drama, as I provide cover for teachers during their non-contact time. I have specialist training in neither subject, but am enjoying both. The position has given me a focus for my continuing professional development and I feel new enthusiasm for both curricular areas.

I teach classes from P1 to P7, but feel my week has more continuity than it did as a class teacher responsible for lessons across the curriculum.

Any research that I do is relevant to my whole working week, rather than a portion of it, and I feel the opportunity exists to become a better teacher of both subjects. I also have the chance to fine-tune activities as I try them on different classes.

Whereas most of my planning time used to be devoted to maths and language activities, with music and drama falling much further down my list of priorities, I can now give these subjects the attention they deserve.

In my first few weeks of working in this way, I believe that my teaching of music and drama has improved, so I wonder if this is something that could work for other teachers.

Primary teachers could benefit from specialisation by having fewer subjects to juggle. They could concentrate their efforts on subjects they enjoy and even include this as part of their initial training. Some teachers might also enjoy the variety of several different classes each week, rather than just one.

Children could, in turn, benefit from higher quality lessons. More focused planning could help gifted children excel, while specialist teachers would be more familiar with strategies to help those experiencing difficulties.

Older children's familiarity with the use of specialist teachers could also help them prepare for the transition to high school.

Specialisation could, therefore, benefit primary schools by improving the overall quality of teaching and learning.

There are, however, clear arguments against the specialisation of primary teachers.

Firstly, it might be unsuitable for children in their first years of school, who are likely to benefit from the stability of having just one teacher. Having too many specialists could upset the routine of a young child's week and therefore hold little benefit. It could also impact on standards of behaviour, with different expectations set by different teachers.

As specialists, it would be more difficult for teachers to get to know the children in their classes, and both children and teachers would, therefore, miss out on the opportunity to form strong relationships.

A key consideration is: would there be enough teachers willing to specialise in particular subjects, or would some areas experience a shortage? It is possible, for example, that subjects with little marking, such as PE and drama, would be much more popular than, say, language and science.

Linked to that could be issues of pay. Should those teaching subjects such as maths be paid more than those teaching subjects perceived to be easier in terms of preparation, marking and assessment? I think not, but this could lead to resentment.

Would specialist teachers have to work between several schools in order to fill their week? I have experience of working between two schools and know it can be a draining experience that requires a very high level of organisation. This in itself could diminish the benefits of specialisation.

Indeed, the majority of teachers might prefer the variety that teaching across the curriculum brings and may miss teaching subjects taken on by specialists.

Having several specialist teachers in one school could prove to be a timetabling nightmare, and there would be limits to the subjects that primary school teachers could specialise in, because it would make no sense having a maths specialist, for example, in for one day a week when this subject forms a cornerstone of the timetable.

Based on my own experience, I do believe there is a limited place for specialist teaching in primary schools. It can improve teachers' expertise and lead to better teaching and learning.

I think it would be dangerous, however, for all primary subjects to be taught in this way. Teachers need the opportunity to bond with their classes and that is why I am looking forward to getting a class of my own again.

After all, while specialisation works in secondary schools, it is important to remember that primary teaching is a speciality in itself.

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