Research School Network: Specialist Teachers or Teachers who Specialise? A primary school pilot

Specialist Teachers or Teachers who Specialise?

A primary school pilot

by Research Schools Network
on the

Jemima Rhys-Evans, Director of Charles Dickens Research School, describes an exciting trial to support teacher specialisation in her primary school.

How can generalist primary school teachers deliver a rigorous curriculum across all subjects? At Charles Dickens we are trialling a system of teacher specialisation in Science and Humanities subjects and measuring the impact on academic outcomes, pastoral care and pupil/​teacher relationships.

This year at Charles Dickens (a two-form entry school), we are piloting an approach in Year 3, whereby class teachers specialise in one subject beyond English and Maths. One of the two class teachers teaches the Science lessons in both classes; one teaches the History and Geography. 

In doing this, we are looking to strike a balance between children having a key adult with whom they spend most of their week and the quality of provision that can be provided by a specialist. 

Our key question is: Can teacher specialisation improve outcomes in Science and Humanities subjects while maintaining strong pastoral care and adult/​child relationships?

We sought research evidence to inform our approach, but struggled to find any specific research on the mixed model we were considering. So, we decided to run a very small-scale pilot to investigate. So far, the pilot has run over two terms, incorporating two Humanities units (one History, one Geography) and four shorter Science units. 

The Year 3 teacher specialising in Science is an NQT – albeit one with 14 years of experience as an HLTA. When she covered PPA across Key Stage Two, she was often asked to teach Science (let’s park for now what that says about the teachers whose classes she was covering). Over the years, she developed a wealth of subject-specific pedagogical knowledge, which she is now applying to her Year 3 lessons. 

The second Year 3 teacher is in her fourth year of teaching. Her degree in Social and Political Sciences provided a sound basis for a Humanities specialism. In addition, she has particular strengths in and enthusiasm for vocabulary development, reading and drama. She has recently worked with Shakespeare’s Globe on a project to embed drama techniques across the curriculum and improve outcomes in writing.

So, what did the teachers think of it?

Impact on pupil outcomes in Science/​Foundation

Teachers reported significant improvements in pupil outcomes, compared to the previous year. They attributed this to:

  1. Being able to research and prepare for lessons in more depth, by having fewer lessons to prepare. It gives us roughly twice the time than if we were doing both subjects!’
  2. Improved subject knowledge leading to higher quality teaching, with a consequent positive impact on outcomes. 
  3. Opportunities for responsive, iterative exploration and adjustment of planning and resources through teaching each lesson twice. Furthermore, where lessons didn’t go quite to plan, it was easier to identify whether this was because of a flaw in the lesson, or if it related to the specific needs of a class. 
  4. To ensure fairness, the second class swapped each week so that classes took turns to benefit from the tweaked second lesson. 
  5. Going forward, lessons learnt will inform the planning for next year.

Impact of adult/​child relationships and pastoral care

A huge positive teachers reported was getting to know the children in the parallel class. They gained a greater understanding of the cohort as a whole and of challenges faced by their partner teacher. 

And what did children think of it?

In a survey, most children (approx. 80%) reported that they liked it when the teachers swapped for Science and History/​Geography.

When asked in interviews what they liked about it, responses included:

  • I really like getting to know [the other teacher] and them getting to know me’
  • You know that the teacher is going to be really fun because it’s their favourite subject’
  • They know how to help us understand because they’ve done it with the other class’

However, some children were worried about working with a different teacher:

  • They might make the work too hard because they don’t know you very well’ 

We should carefully unpick how teachers self-report the impact of our approach, but it is clear that their professional knowledge has developed through the pilot, with one teacher summing it up: 

“Professionally, I have enjoyed the challenge of working in another class and it has given me greater insight into my partner teacher's experience and the children in that class. I am now an expert on where all the children in Year 3 are with their humanities learning, something which I couldn't say with as much confidence in other subjects, as data only gets you so far. I am a strong advocate for this approach to teaching and fully intend to continue with it next year.”

Alas, the pilot has been cut short by the premature end to this term; however, we are looking to rollout the approach to other year groups as the feedback from teachers has been so positive.

Related reading:

  • Daniel Muijs, Head of Research at Ofsted, on the lack of teacher subject knowledge as a barrier to high standards of teaching and learning across the curriculum in primary
  • Greg Ashman’s excellent blog explores the debates around specialization in Australia. He also highlights the focus on teachers developing deep knowledge in specific subjects in high performing countries such as Finland, Shanghai and Japan.
  • As a counterbalance, this report from Texas found a negative impact on pupil outcomes of specialisation and postulated that the increased number of students taught by the specialist limited the development of relationships and understanding of their specific needs.

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