Subject expertise

The DfE recently published an interesting document about specialist and non-specialist teaching in schools. The original can be found at

The DfE accepts that data collection methods currently mean it cannot link data about pupil outcomes directly to individual teacher’, as is possible in some jurisdictions, including, I believe, some US School Board districts. As the DfE note:

As a consequence of this data limitation, it is not possible to directly evaluate the impact ‘specialist’ teachers have on pupil outcomes by comparing them to ‘non-specialist’ teachers. This report employs a variety of analytical strategies to estimate the impact indirectly using school level data. New analysis of the impact of ‘non-specialist’ teaching presented in this report is therefore based on the proportion of ‘specialist’ teaching calculated at school level.

Now, there is a further difficulty about what determines a specialist teacher and especially the place of un-reported post-entry professional development. This is a direct consequence of the fact that QTS (Qualified Teacher Status) is not linked throughout a teacher’s career to a subject or even a phase of education. Thus a teacher qualified on a PGCE in physical education and with a sport science degree could take a second degree in say, physics, but this would not necessarily be recorded and they wouldn’t receive access to funding for a new teacher preparation course unless there was a specific government re-training initiative.

Some years ago, I looked into who was teaching mathematics at Key Stage 5. Some successful schools didn’t seem to employ teachers with mathematics degrees, but rather those with degrees in other subjects. This didn’t seem to affect examination results. So, an interest and liking for the subject may be an important ingredient in successful teaching, but in some circumstances it may not be enough as standards are raised. I guess I would struggle to teach English even at Key Stage2 now, because my knowledge of the technical underpinning of our complex language is limited, as this blog regularly displays to its readers. However, even with a degree in economics and geography I happily taught geography, including physical geography, for a number of years in a comprehensive school, although even now I am not sure I could still do so as the subject has move don so much since then.

Anyway, back to this interesting DfE report. Using their definitions ,the authors of the DfE report state that:

The available data show that for a suite of subjects the extent of ‘specialist’ teaching in secondary schools in England is comparable or higher than the international averages. The vast majority of hours taught in England to pupils in years 7-13 in most subjects are taught by teachers with a relevant post A-level qualification. In November 2015, the respective proportions were 88.9% for all subjects, 90.2% for EBacc subjects, 89.2% for Mathematics, 91.5% for English, 91.5% for History, 89.0% for Geography, 79.0% for Modern Foreign Languages, 80.2% for Physics, 88.8% for Chemistry and 95.1% for Biology.

This, of course, raises the question, why then don’t we do better at international tests such as PISA? Is it because we do different things. Or, is it that the 10% of teaching not taught be specialists has a disproportionate effect on outcomes?

Table 2 on page 23 of the report provides a useful timeline of changes in percentages of specialist teaching in a typical week. It confirms that in the aftermath of the recession most subjects reached their peak of percentages taught by a specialist. Since 2013/14, possibly due to the start of increased pupil numbers and the falling interest in teaching as a profession, percentages have started to decline in key subjects, most notably in Physics, where, form a peak of 83.3% in 2010/11 there had been a decline to 80.2% in 2015/16.

Table 4 is worth reproducing here in part, as it shows the proportion of hours taught in a typical week in November 2015 to pupils in years 7 to 13 by the highest relevant post A-level qualification of teacher using a matched database of teacher qualifications and the TSM subject mapping.

Subject Degree  BEd PGCE Other None Total
Mathematics 60.6 3.9 20.1 4.7 10.8 100
English 78.2 2.0 7.7 3.7 8.5 100
Any Science 87.3 1.9 5.1 1.1 4.6 100
Physics 66.9 1.8 10.4 1.2 19.8 100
Chemistry 79.2 1.2 7.8 0.6 11.2 100
Biology 86.9 1.3 5.8 1.2 4.9 100
Comb/General Science 90.8 2.1 4.0 1.2 1.9 100

The low percentage for Physics is especially noticeable. Presumably, it is even higher at Key Stage 3. The significant percentage of teachers of mathematics with a degree in a different subject is also worthy of note.

This post cannot do justice to the wealth of information in the report and I would urge those interested in the topic to read the full report as it repays the time taken, but not on Christmas Day.


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