‘Hybrid subjects’ could solve specialism problem

9th February 2018 at 00:00
The Commission on School Reform has called for more interdisciplinary learning

The requirement for secondary teachers to have a degree in a subject in order to teach it has long been a source of pride in Scottish education. However, calls last week for these “stringent requirements” to be relaxed so teachers could deliver “cognate” subjects have stirred up a hornets’ nest, with one expert arguing for new specialisms, such as social subjects, to be created.

Who is calling for secondary teachers to be able to teach related subjects?

The Commission on School Reform. It was set up by the thinktanks Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy and includes former council chief executive and Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) architect Keir Bloomer, head of University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education Professor Rowena Arshad, and retired secondary headteacher Frank Lennon.

What is it pushing for?

The commission is arguing that strict General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) rules around the qualifications that secondary subject teachers in Scotland must hold are preventing schools from breaking down the barriers between disciplines, resulting in the fragmentation of the curriculum.

Schools are continuing to timetable three discrete social subjects and three sciences in the early secondary years, it says, because of the “stringent requirements set by the GTCS”, which mean teachers can deliver their subject, but not related subjects.

Because of the rules, the commission warns, schools have been largely unable to deliver on “an important element” of CfE – interdisciplinary learning.

What is interdisciplinary learning?

CfE envisages that the curriculum should include learning beyond subject boundaries, so that pupils can make connections between different areas of learning.

How have teachers reacted?

Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA), says that he would “die in a ditch” before allowing the rules around subject specialists in Scotland to be broken. In England – where he has previously worked as a union official – Searson says that it is common for teachers to deliver subjects they are not qualified in. That is not a road Scotland wants to go down, he warns.

The commission’s argument prompted a flurry of responses on Twitter. Some pointed out that for the sciences, at least, what the commission is seeking happens already and that most schools deliver general science in early secondary, with few schools timetabling discrete subjects.

However, many feel that the failure of interdisciplinary learning to take off throughout Scotland is a problem that needs to be addressed. One chemistry student teacher said that it was not necessarily easy for a chemistry specialist to teach about genetics, or a biologist to teach about electricity.

Meanwhile, a history teacher said it was the subject of debate in his school where, for instance, geography teachers were not happy teaching the Holocaust and history and modern studies teachers did not feel comfortable teaching about desertification.

What do they say needs to happen?

Professor Mark Priestley, a curriculum expert based at the University of Stirling, says that inflexible subject boundaries have been a problem for some time, but that people teaching outside their specialism is not the answer.

He argues instead for creating new specialisms, such as social studies. On Twitter, he wrote: “We need ITE [initial teacher education] programmes and teacher registration that acknowledge the need to prepare and recognise new hybrid subjects for BGE [broad general education] secondary. Not adequate to expect specialists in one area to pick up another.”

A physics teacher from Angus pointed out that science specialists had studied physics with science, chemistry with science or biology with science – and suggested that, in other areas of the curriculum, teacher education courses such as history with social studies be introduced to encourage expertise across disciplines.

What does the GTCS say?

Chief executive Ken Muir says that the commission’s proposal, if taken forward, could lead to a return to the 1960s in Scotland, when unqualified teachers delivered subjects in which they had no expertise.

He adds: “The requirement for teachers to specialise in certain areas is there for a purpose, and that is to ensure that children get experts delivering the curriculum in their subject area. There are already many schools in Scotland where cognate groupings are taught by a single teacher, particularly in science and social subjects.

“I can’t see any way in which having ‘stringent requirements’ reduces the possibility of having interdisciplinary learning. There are subject specialists already delivering good-quality interdisciplinary learning.”

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