Primary schools are changing. No longer is there an expectation that teachers should be able to demonstrate expertise in every aspect of the curriculum. Increasingly, there is recognition that there can be huge benefits from offering children the chance to learn from teachers and other adults passionate about their own specialist area of the curriculum.
I am the headteacher of a small primary, but among our wider staff team and community, we have a wealth of expertise to share with our children. Several years ago, we advertised for volunteer readers. A retired civil servant, Roger Watson, came to meet me. He explained that he had always hoped his son would want to read the classics with him but this had never transpired in the way that he had hoped.
He asked if our older children might like to read with him several times a week. We asked our Year 6 to put their names forward and we have found, year after year, that his book group is oversubscribed with those keen to read and discuss books such as Treasure Island, Goodnight Mister Tom and Carrie’s War. We are also keen to engage the children in environmental and gardening activities in the school grounds. With a farmer and parents, we established a “Compost Committee” to help children and teachers grow, harvest and cook food.
We employ a sports coach and also a visiting drumming and ukulele teacher. Recently, we have begun to adapt our timetables to incorporate more opportunities for maths and language specialism. Expert teaching builds infectious enthusiasm not only among the children but also within the staff team.
Last year, our Year 6 teacher, Sally Barker, had the opportunity to visit Shanghai to observe primary mathematics teaching. It has been a privilege to witness the way Sally has been able to build on her learning from the visit to provide inspirational lessons.
How much more could we achieve if more of our teachers were free to study their particular subject area in depth, in order to teach for some of the time beyond their own class? The importance of deepening teachers’ subject knowledge within the primary curriculum has long been acknowledged. Professor Robin Alexander stated in the report of the Cambridge Primary Review that “while testing may be the elephant in the curriculum, where teaching expertise is concerned, the elephant may be subject knowledge”.
Others agree. The Prince’s Teaching Institute, for example, was established to enhance expertise within the secondary classroom but it has now recognised the importance of providing subject-specific professional learning for primary colleagues; an initiative I support.
There are huge demands on teachers. School leadership that celebrates expertise and enables professional learning to flourish, however, provides limitless opportunities for teachers and children to enjoy primary school; just as they should.
Dame Alison Peacock is executive headteacher of the Wroxham School in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, and a government adviser