In defence of primary teaching

11th December 2015 at 00:00
Primary teachers have to endure persistent negative stereotyping, and the latest attack is on their levels of subject knowledge. Sinéad Gaffney argues for the defence, cutting to the heart of what primary education should be for ➤

What kind of dullard doesn’t know enough geography to teach a 7-year-old?!” the secondary teachers screeched, stabbing their phones in subject-specialist indignation.

We were in the midst of one of those week-night education Twitter storms. The Education Endowment Foundation had just published a report on its Hirsch-inspired Word and World Reading programme (, which aimed to increase Year 3 and Year 4 children’s “background knowledge” to see if that had the knock-on effect of improving their literacy levels. The outcomes were mixed. But some teachers’ lack of subject knowledge made it as far as the summary findings:

“In some lessons, teachers’ subject knowledge did not appear to be sufficient to support an in-depth discussion with pupils about some topics within the programme curriculum. This suggests that additional training or support materials may have been beneficial.”

These few words were seized upon within seconds and used as a set of stocks in which primary teachers and their apparent lack of subject specialism were held. We primary teachers have been here before, of course. Questions over our subject knowledge have long been transmitted out of DfE curriculum changes, reformulated assessments and Sunday press releases, not to mention social media. And subject knowledge is the latest in a long line of pedagogic sticks with which to beat us.

Yet as it stands, the primary system is not geared up to provide the solution that people seem to seek. Primary pupils have one main teacher per year. We cannot expect that teacher to become a Da Vinci-esque polymath, able to call on a working knowledge of every subject. That would be difficult at key stage 1, but by the time you’re teaching Year 6, it’s genuinely impossible.

So change the system? For some, a secondary-style carousel of subject specialist teachers is the answer. There are many reasons why that would seem to make sense. But before we leap on to a secondary-style bandwagon in our frenzy to meet new and higher standards, or pay too much heed to other criticisms of our primary teaching craft, schools need to take a moment to question what exactly primary education is for and how best that objective can be reached.

Having a degree ‘isn’t enough’

In many ways, the new national curriculum requires primary teachers to have not more subject knowledge but rather knowledge of a different kind. There’s that modern foreign language, for starters. And the children are now required to have more grammatical skills and more geographical and historical facts, figures, dates and terminology at their fingertips and, therefore, so are we teachers. Not only that, it’s about different stuff – the Stone Age, the Iron Age and the Vikings, rather than the Victorians and the Tudors.

And we need to know this for nine different subjects (10 including RE) outside our core two, maths and English.

With such demands, you can see why a secondary-style system of subject specialist teachers is attractive. Many primary teachers have a first degree in one of those subjects – shouldn’t we be using it more?

The teachers would not only get more enjoyment out of teaching their subject but also they would arguably be better at it. Subject passion is, after all, often cited as a key to good teaching.

But primary subject knowledge is not a matter of simply loving a subject and managing to get yourself a degree in it. If only it were that easy.

It is not the case that teaching is a straightforward process of transmitting inert chunks of knowledge from an expert teacher’s head into a child’s empty and waiting mind (let alone 30 or more different minds).

A teacher needs to understand who she is teaching, their likely levels of understanding and how to shape her own knowledge so that it makes sense communicated to a group of children.

At primary level, given the choice, children would far rather be playing with the Velcro on their shoes than finding out what “difference” means in maths.

What teachers need, in addition to subject knowledge, is pedagogy: the teaching knowledge required, as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre puts it, to do “the right thing in the right place at the right time in the right way”.

That comes with bespoke training, and a lot of it. The excellent maths outcomes for primary children in China (well, Shanghai) are often attributed to the superior subject knowledge of Chinese teachers (for example, by schools minister Nick Gibb in 2014) and it is a fact that maths is taught at primary level by specialist teachers.

But, according to fact-finding reconnaissance trips from the UK, these teachers are not merely maths specialists but maths-education specialists. The five years of training that teachers in Shanghai receive before they qualify (which is followed by continuing close mentoring in school) are not spent simply doing advanced mathematics.

The time is used to learn how to teach maths. And, according to a 2013 report from the National College for School Leadership, primary teachers in Shanghai typically spend just a quarter of the day teaching in front of a class.

“This high amount of professional non-contact time generates opportunities for extension classes, tutorial work, individual support, detailed planning and systematic and immediate marking with feedback to their students…In timetabled research groups [teachers] analyse lesson plans, consider lesson delivery and carry out post-lesson reflections, comparing parallel classes.”

Clearly, that level of non-contact time and training is far beyond what we could possibly conceive of in this country, particularly at primary. When you hear about practice like that, it makes you realise what a remarkable job we are doing, given our different circumstances.

But even if we were to nurture our subject specialists in this way, to link their knowledge with pedagogy, would it work in primary?

The key skills in primary

There are reasons why our primary schools are arranged as they are, and these are connected to the ways we have traditionally perceived the purpose of primary schools and the role of specialist teachers within this. Currently, we are specialists not in subjects but in primary teaching and that encapsulates four different elements.

The first is a skill for teaching English and maths. Children need these subjects so they can access the secondary curriculum, but beyond that, they form the foundational skills that will see them through life and their learning beyond school.

We do many essential things alongside this at primary, such as shepherding children through their first forays into the social world beyond their family. Nonetheless, the umbrella subjects of English and maths contain many of the basic skills and knowledge that define our core purpose.

I wouldn’t send my own children to a primary school that couldn’t deliver on that promise. Teaching these subjects takes skills and knowledge that aren’t learned overnight. Quite rightly, most of our training both pre- and post-qualification focuses on these aspects of subject and pedagogical knowledge.

The second element is a skill in teaching particular age groups. Moving a teacher from Year 6 to Reception, or vice versa, is not a decision headteachers take lightly, and their reluctance is not because of teachers’ lack of subject knowledge. It’s because teaching five-year-olds requires a different kind of skill and expertise to teaching 10-year-olds.

Of course, both year groups need high expectations and a resilient attitude to their learning, but how we go about achieving that is often markedly different. Children change a lot from the start of primary to the end, and our teaching changes to match those developments.

If a child is 5, it seems unremarkable to argue that it’s a good idea to have a teacher who knows them, their family, their likes and dislikes, their strengths and weaknesses, their history, their toileting habits, their fears and so on. If there is a revolving door of 12 subject specialists, the teachers can’t know each child well enough.

The question is at what point this changes. At what age, generally, is a child’s learning held back by having somebody teach them who knows them very well, but has a less secure grasp of what they are teaching?

It is hard to find agreement on this, and I think schools will, rightly, answer this question differently depending on the children they teach. Independent schools have long used subject specialists to teach children from the age of 7 and a number of recent opinion pieces have called for specialists in upper key stage 2.

And yet, at the same time, increasing numbers of secondary schools and multi-academy trusts are introducing a project-based approach to their Year 7 curricula with students coming into contact with fewer teachers, amid concerns that children’s learning suffers from missing out on the relationship that comes with being known well by a smaller number of adults.

As Lisa Pettifer pointed out in TES last month (“A land where teachers roam free”, Feature, 30 October), Finland is also embarking on a similar approach for parts of its secondary curriculum.

Much rides on the outcomes of these experiments, but for now the system is geared for us to be specialists in teaching age groups at primary, not just subjects, and I think on balance that is right.

Third, we are skilled in cross-curricular teaching. At primary, the boundaries between subjects are not always strongly framed; in fact, they can be pretty blurry. I see this as a strength.

When my class studied Scott and Amundsen’s race to the South Pole, were they learning history? Or perhaps all that map-reading meant it was a geography topic? When we found out why it was a better idea for the explorers not to cook the penguin meat (cooking killed the vitamins), weren’t we learning science? The finger puppet penguins and seals they sewed and played with neatly fulfilled D&T objectives.

This approach helps the children make sense of the world and gives them the permission and opportunities to explore the questions they ask about it. A primary timetable structured around subject specialists would prevent children from capitalising on those links as they learn.

There’s a practical reason for this: time is short. Most schools spend three of the five teaching hours available to them each day teaching English and maths. The rest spend more than that. We don’t have time to teach every aspect of every subject as well as we could. If we did, our three Rs would seriously suffer.

Of course, there are some subjects (PE, music, MFL, computing) that involve a set of skills that are quite separate from those being practised in other areas of the curriculum. So it is no surprise that these are the subjects most often covered by specialists (if you can find them) in many primary schools. I fall in gratitude at the feet of the music teacher who turns up every week with his far superior subject and pedagogical content knowledge to teach my class music.

However, I think we need to be cautious even here. In handing over any area of the curriculum to someone else, we give up the opportunity to know that aspect of the children. And that may be a loss, both for the child and the teacher. This is particularly true when you consider the inclusion of children with special educational needs and disability, as well as those who are vulnerable in other ways: we need to consider how they experience being taught by someone who doesn’t know them as well as their teacher. At the age of 10, are the claimed gains in knowledge worth that cost?

Finally, there is a fourth element that makes up a specialist primary teacher. The deal, as I see it, is that we send students to secondary with a secure grasp of the basics but also a delight in finding out more about the world around them. So, when I think back on those teachers in that EEF study, delivering lessons on a topic they weren’t sure about and which they did not participate in planning, I wonder if it wouldn’t have worked better if they had been given freedom to teach something they did know about and tailor it to the children they were teaching.

We should allow primary practitioners to spend time teaching the children they know the stuff teachers do know about: a picture book, a work of art, a favourite piece of music, orienteering, cave paintings, the golden ratio, the social life of elephants, penicillin. They should be allowed to share and inspire a love of the knowledge they do have and have spent time fostering. Enthusiasm is contagious. Enthusiasm ought to be a primary teacher’s stock in trade.

Is this the right kind of specialism for primary? I believe it is. We have the skills to teach children to read, to write, to be articulate and to be numerate. We have the skills to teach children of particular age groups in a cross-curricular way. We have the skills to instil a love of learning. We don’t need to mimic secondary schools and chase subject specialism. We don’t need to listen to disparaging comments about the way we teach. We are specialists in primary teaching and we should stand up for ourselves, our purpose, and most importantly, the children we teach by stating that proudly.

Sinéad Gaffney teaches at Greystones Primary School in Sheffield and is currently studying for an EdD at the University of Sheffield. @shinpad1


l Education Endowment Foundation (2015) The Word and World Reading Programme report

l Schools minister Nick Gibb’s speech

to education publishers about quality textbooks (2014)

l MacIntyre, AC (1981) After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Duckworth)

How many subject specialists are there in secondary schools?

The proportions of teachers of a given subject, for year groups 7-13, who did not have a relevant post A-level qualification in 2014, according the Department for Education in England in 2014:

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