Improving primary teachers' subject knowledge across the curriculum

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What the resource is:
This report summarises the evidence from inspectors of Ofsted's subject survey programme during 2007/8 on the quality of teaching across the primary curriculum in all subjects. It excludes English and mathematics, but includes religious education, PSHE and citizenship. It focuses on aspects of good practice in teaching these non-core subjects and identifies good subject knowledge as a key factor in securing effective teaching and learning.

The report considers the specific weaknesses in teachers' subject knowledge in lessons observed during the inspection process, and addresses how the specialist demands of teaching the full range of the primary curriculum need to be met. It identifies the key role of the subject leader in developing and maintaining high quality teaching in different subjects, and also recognises the importance of whole school policies, including continued professional development, the support of local networks and the impact of external agencies.


The aims of the resource:
HMI's Annual Reports have consistently identified subject knowledge as a weaker aspect of teaching. This report aims to identify aspects of good practice and areas for improvement in subject teaching outside the core subjects. It does not address the general teaching skills observed during lessons, but focuses instead on some of the particular demands different subjects make on teachers' subject knowledge.

The report makes specific recommendations to remedy weaknesses in subject teaching in the light of the Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum. These recommendations aim to raise the standard of all primary teaching, to ensure that pupils make all the progress of which they are capable.


Key findings or focus:
The central finding of this report is the observed link between high quality teaching and subject knowledge. In the sample of lessons seen, inspectors noted specific weaknesses in teachers' subject knowledge which meant that pupils' achievement was not as high as it might have been. The best teaching showed that teachers understood the particular demands of individual subjects in relation to pupils' learning.

Specific weaknesses in lessons where teachers displayed inadequate subject knowledge are identified as:

  • a tendency to focus appropriately on objectives related to literacy in planning and assessment, but giving insufficient weight to the specific objectives of the subject being taught
  • a failure to tackle specific errors and misconceptions as they related to the subject
  • an inability to field pupils' more probing questions
  • a lack of sufficient challenge for higher attaining pupils through the tasks set.

This would provide a valuable assessment tool or focus of discussion for tutors in ITE and mentors when engaging with trainee teachers. There was also a tendency to over-rely on external schemes of work.

In any one school, the range and quality of teachers' subject knowledge can be widely variable, although effective schools were finding many ways to remedy weaknesses, through links with partner schools, using external staff and securing focused professional development.

The report highlights the role of the subject leader as vital in developing and maintaining high quality teaching in individual subjects. The final section recommends ways in which subject leaders can be deployed effectively, particularly through their recognition in whole-school policies.

Specific training programmes have had a significant impact on the quality of teaching. This is demonstrated in PSHE, where primary teachers' subject knowledge was seen to have improved considerably.

Overall findings and recommendations are followed by specific findings in each of the reported subjects as they relate to: science and technology; history, geography and citizenship, the arts, physical and personal development; modern languages and religious education. The subject reports on which these findings are based are listed in Further information.

If schools are to remedy teachers' shortcomings in subject knowledge, then more subject-specific training and development in primary schools needs to inform future professional development.

Details of particular strengths and weaknesses as they relate to each of the observed subjects are summarised, and the considerable demands placed on teachers in understanding how pupils learn in each of these subjects is emphasised.


The quality, authority and credibility of the resource from your subject perspective in relation to ITE:
This is a highly authoritative report and the most wide-ranging of its kind, which needs to be read by all agencies involved in the delivery of primary education. It is based on the observation of 937 lessons across 12 subjects in 241 schools, during 2007/8. The report notes some shortcomings in the range of lessons observed, such as schools themselves selecting these lessons and a possible tendency for lessons to be taught by teachers who were more confident in teaching a particular subject. It is, therefore, possible that the number of lessons judged to be satisfactory and above may be exaggerated.

While teachers have had access to individual subject reports by Ofsted previously, this succinct summary draws together findings specifically related to subject knowledge from the wider curriculum.


The implications for ITE tutors/mentors:
There is particular relevance to ITE in the challenge of how to equip trainee teachers with the necessary breadth of subject knowledge for teaching the full primary curriculum. Mentors will need to consider the extent to which teachers in their schools are equipped to provide trainee teachers with examples of good practice.

The report acknowledges the very real difficulty faced by trainee teachers in acquiring the necessary breadth of subject knowledge for teaching. ITE tutors may wish to consider the implications of course design and structure in the light of this report.

Given the pressures of time in some ITE courses, the quality of school-based experience is vital, as students may require extensive support from teachers and mentors. However, the report finds that the range and quality of teachers' subject knowledge "is largely a matter of chance". ITE tutors need to monitor examples of good practice by teachers in particular subjects and seek ways of enabling ITE students to gain access to this expertise. Mentors, in their turn, may need to consider ways of extending their own CPD, to the extent that they are confident in being able to provide informed guidance to students across the full primary curriculum.


The relevance to ITE students:
Given their different backgrounds and qualifications and the limited time available for non-core subjects in some initial teacher education courses, ITE students are likely to have limited knowledge of at least some of the subjects in the primary curriculum, outside of English and mathematics.

On qualification, new entrants to the teaching profession will need to identify the further basic training they are likely to require in order to gain the necessary breadth of subject knowledge.

Within the context of the Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum, subjects will continue to provide ‘the underpinning purpose and content' of the primary curriculum. For ITE students, subject knowledge "continues to be important if they are to make the most of the opportunities offered by the revised curriculum" (Para 68).


Reviewed by:
Jayne Woodhouse


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Source : primary teachers subject knowledge across the curriculum.doc / primary teachers subject knowledge across the curriculum.pdf

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