Specialist teachers at KS3?

This post relates to specialist teachers at KS3 for the sciences and whether we should have science teachers teach any of the three sciences pre-KS4 or whether there is an argument to suggest having specialists teaching their subject improves student outcomes. I was unable to find any research on this, so this is all through discussion and is entirely anecdotal.

A recent email from a colleague with the subject ‘Just a thought read:

Science
Photo courtesy of Flickr (Creative Commons)

Hi Drew,

I was just thinking about split groups and I know we often end up having these in Year 7 but I wondered if for the future we might consider having split groups in Year 9, particularly for top teaching groups as this way we could have specialist Bio, Chem and Phys teachers for those groups and prepare them for the difference at GCSE and we wouldn’t have to have split groups in Year 7 where they’d benefit from having fewer teachers as it’s a hard enough transition from one teacher to many anyway.

It really got me thinking. Is there much of a difference with having our Year 9 students taught by specialists than not? What impact will it have if they were taught by specialists? After some discussion on Twitter, the following points came out:

Pros

  • Increased motivation and passion for each individual science because more often than not a subject specialist will be pushing their own subject more than if it were taught by a non-specialist
  • Improved breadth and depth of knowledge gained as the subject specialist knows the GCSE syllabus and beyond better, in most cases, than a non-specialist would
  • Improved GCSE results. If the teaching of the content at Year 9 is improved as above then when students get to GCSE they will already have a firmer grounding of the subject. They’ll also be more motivated to study the subject so might/will put in more effort to their work at GCSE
  • In the long-run, improved uptake at A Level and increased interest in pursuing the subject areas beyond KS5

Cons

  • Lack of consistency – going from having the same teacher for 7 lessons over a fortnight to having three teachers across those 7 lessons
  • Lack of personalisation – the teachers will not get to know the students as well as if they were able to take the whole class
  • Ownership of the class – reports, parents’ evenings and data entry is more secure when you only have the one teacher
  • Many teachers enjoy teaching out of specialism and are very good at it

Points to note

  • There is a general recognition that consistency and continuity for the younger students in our schools is preferred to subject specialists
  • Many schools start KS4 in Year 9 and that is when they start with subject specialists
  • Most schools have around 3 hours a week KS3 Science teaching and 4 – 4.5 hours a week KS4 Science
  • Private schools almost always have specialist teachers in KS3
  • Potential to deskill teachers from teacher out of specialism
  • Each school has a different context, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to this

My instinct is to go with specialists from Year 9. Our school has a three-year KS3 so we would be breaking the trend with most responses that I received, in that we would have specialists before KS4. However, we fit the trend in that many schools have specialists teaching Year 9 (but that they would have started KS4).

With regards to lack of consistency/continuity/ownership, it is a matter of when you break that continuity and ownership. Do you break it in Year 9, or Year 10? It’ll be broken in Year 10 anyway, when each Science has about 1.5 hours of teaching a week. Is there any argument for breaking it in Year 9, when each Science has on average 1 hour of teaching a week? It would mean having a teacher once a week instead of 1.5 times a week and the argument would be about whether that constitutes a significant enough difference.

My instinct still says to go specialists from Year 9.

A number of Twitter-folk have given me a lot of food for thought, so thanks be to @Arakwai, @missbowi, @martin_clee, @KDWScience, @StitchingSue, @nickdennis and @drgeorgespeller amongst others.

3 Comment

  1. Richard Needham says:

    What is a subject specialist? We are finding it difficult to agree a definition. Must it exclude all primary teachers? Is it possible to have a SCIENCE specialist or is that an oxymoron?
    These are important questions nationally if we want to track the % pupils taught by subject specialists.
    Your list of cons is missing points about developing the big ideas in science and working scientifically which are central to developing scientific reasoning, arguably the reason why children should be taught science.
    Some subjects do not get 7 periods a fortnight. Do they suffer from lack of continuity and ownership too? I am sure these issues could be solved if we put our minds to it and made it the priority it deserves.
    There is no single correct answer to your question, but it is a vital question for schools to consider, if they have the luxury of an adequate supply of specialists.

  2. mrthomson says:

    Hi Richard,

    Thanks for the response. You are right about there being a lack of clarity as to what defines a subject specialist. My assumption was: those teachers with a degree in their subject (or very close to). Then, of course, you have those who have converted to a subject usually through Subject Knowledge Enhancement courses and the like. Are they *subject specialists*? The thing is, all teachers should have the ability to enthuse and motivate. All teachers should have the ability to sell a subject, to inspire students to take that subject further (though if subject knowledge is weak then the teacher won’t get far). The key attribute subject specialists ought to bring is that breadth and depth of knowledge to take students further. That isn’t easy to replicate if you are without a degree in the subject, usually because of the amount of time required to become au fait with the content of the courses. Often you find those teachers who have been in the game for a number of years have developed a breadth of knowledge beyond their subject specialism that is difficult for the newbies to acquire.

    How does being taught by subject specialists limit development of the big ideas and working scientifically? In my example above they will have two years of set teachers, then in Year 9 subject specialists. Is two years enough to develop some of these? The Schemes of Work that we use have all of this built in across subject areas and throughout a scheme. This removes the need for any careful oversight by some kind of middle leader who would be driving cross-specialism working scientifically…work. Is this what you mean? I’m not sure I’ve answered that bit in response to what you were asking!

    You are right RE: other subjects not getting the same amount of time as Science, and that is certainly something worth investigating.

    Thanks Richard – your insight is much appreciated.

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