Should Australian primary school teachers be subject specialists?


Yesterday, Adelaide Now published this story, reporting that the Federal Government in Australia is considering making primary school teachers subject specialists.

It’s not the first time the idea has been mooted. I noticed a number of reports throughout 2014 suggesting the same.

The reasoning appears to be that this will be a way of reversing the apparent slump that Australia is experiencing in Mathematics and Science.

There are some compelling reasons to consider the idea:

A number of high performing school systems do have specialist teachers. According to the article, both Finland and Singapore require their primary teachers to have specialisations.

Representatives from the Australian Science Teachers Association and the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers , quoted in the article, claim their research has shown  the majority of Australian primary teachers feel inadequate to address or teach science, and that they don’t have sufficient knowledge to teach maths well.

However, in spite of this, the idea does not sit comfortably with me.

 A few concerns:

Being a generalist teacher allows us great flexibility in how we deliver the curriculum. We are not restricted by the complex timetabling issues which would be created by requiring specific subjects to be taught by specialists.

I can increase or decrease the time my class spends on subjects like maths on a daily or weekly basis according to their learning needs.

My timetabling flexibility means that I am not forced to teach maths at 2:00pm on a hot Friday afternoon to a class full of tired 8 year olds. I timetable my subjects around what will support learning, not around the availability of specialist teachers.

Teaching the same class for all subjects importantly means that I can take an integrated approach to help students see the connections and relevance of subjects like maths to other areas of the curriculum. For example, when studying measurement in mathematics,  we are able to integrate it with our work in art, geography, science and sport. Students are able to make meaningful use of their mathematical skills, which creates a NEED to learn and a subsequent improvement in engagement. The work becomes relevant.

Some good points

I’m reluctant to completely dismiss the idea. My primary school happens to have a specialist science teacher who teaches science during our 2 hours release from face-to-face teaching time each week . The expert knowledge and passion she brings to this subject is inspiring, and the curriculum she  teaches is a step above what I would be able to offer. You can see her work here.

Our science teacher also works as a mentor. We have more classes than she can cover, so we have generalist teachers employed to teach science to the additional classes. She works closely with those teachers, assisting them to develop and deliver their curriculum.

Her work has inspired countless young students to take an interest in science that I hope will carry through to high school and beyond. I can honestly say that since she joined our team, science at my school has become something we are truly proud of.

But much as I value our science program, I would not like to see specialisation to the extent that our curriculum becomes fragmented, where subjects are only able to be  taught in isolation by separate teachers, instead of in a manner that allows a more holistic, integrated approach.

A better answer

I believe a better answer is to be found in improving our preservice teacher education, and in our ongoing professional learning.

Science and mathematics are not optional add ons. They are part of the core curriculum. It’s unacceptable for primary school teachers to be incapable of teaching either area. IT’S OUR JOB!

I’m not without sympathy for those teachers. If so many are feeling incompetent then I’d have to ask if they are being adequately prepared to teach those subjects in their preservice teacher education? Why are so many teachers apparently entering our system without competency in the very subjects they are being trained to teach?

And if they don’t LIKE teaching those subjects, then I’d have to ask why they became primary school teachers. I repeat: ITS OUR JOB.

To assume that a generalist teacher doesn’t have the ability to teach all those subjects well, simply because they teach across subjects, seems a very impoverished view of our capacity as human beings: to learn and excel in multiple domains.

I am proudly an English teacher, a maths teacher, a science teacher, an art teacher, a music teacher, a history teacher, a geography teacher and health and physical education teacher. My pre-service training at Kuringai College and later University of Technology, Sydney provided an excellent grounding in all of those subject areas. I’ve continued to learn and develop my competencies in those areas and after 20 years am neither lacking in confidence or competence.

To suggest that a specialist is required to do parts of my job because I lack the expertise is insulting.


Teaching Quality or Teacher Quality – Framing the debate around education.

Just think about the difference between these two terms:

Teaching Quality

Teacher Quality.

The simple change, from a verb to a noun,  brings with it a massive shift in the way we think about the education system and the work of teachers.

Teaching Quality directs our attention to what teachers DO.  A few years ago in  NSW, we adopted the Quality Teaching Framework, a model of pedagogy which we used to guide our professional development. It included evaluation tools that allowed us to reflect on our practice, identify areas that we were doing and identify those areas in which we could become more effective. It was a tool for learning, that enabled all teachers to develop their practice and improve their teaching quality. The idea of Teaching Quality brings with it the notion that teaching can be learned and can be improved.  It also brings with it the idea of investing in and building a culture of ongoing professional learning.

Teacher Quality directs our attention to who teachers ARE. There is an ongoing debate around this idea in Australia at the moment. Should only our highest achieving high school graduates be allowed to study teaching, or should everyone be given access to a teacher education course?  Does success at school predetermine Teacher Quality?  Read this article in today’s Sydney Morning Herald for a taste of the debate. The term Teacher Quality  focuses us on the TYPE of people who become teachers rather than on investing in their ongoing professional growth.

I find the use of the term Teacher Quality extremely problematic when used to frame debate around education.  Too frequently it is used in a  way that, intentionally or not, denigrates the profession. As I wrote in my post The Problem with the Teacher Quality Debate,  often it puts the entire responsibility for an education system on to the shoulders of its individual teachers and other issues, such as equity, school management, funding, provision of access to professional learning and provision of adequate time to prepare lessons can be conveniently ignored.

A cynic might even believe that conservative governments and commentators,  who are eager to reduce rather than increase public spending,  deliberately use this language to avoid responsibility for dealing with the difficult and complex nature of an education system. The  solution is appealingly easy: recruit a better, higher quality type of person into teaching,  so that we have Quality Teachers and the education system will become one of the world’s best.  When the system doesn’t work, instead of dealing with complexity, we can just blame those other teachers, the one’s who aren’t of quality.

The problem with the teacher quality debate

“Good Teachers Trump Small Classes: OECD Adviser” screamed a headline in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

This is just the latest article I’ve seen in the ongoing debates around education reform, and yes we all know that teacher quality is extremely important. We know that teacher quality has one of the most significant effects on educational achievement. I’m not disputing that.

The problem I have with focusing on teacher quality is that too often, it’s talked about in isolation and discussions about it don’t take into account the fact that we are just one very important part of a system. The whole system needs to be functioning properly to allow each part to do its job properly.

You can have a great set of wheels on a car, but if the tires are bald you’re heading for trouble.


I was fortunate to attend Andreas Schleicher‘s talk on  PISA at the University of Sydney Education yesterday. He’s the education adviser to the OECD and was the expert quoted in the Herald’s article.

While his data did not show evidence of smaller class sizes correlating to better academic outcomes it did show some interesting things about teacher quality. There was a correlation between countries investing in teacher quality and achieving higher educational outcomes measured on PISA. Investment in salaries did not make much difference, but investment in giving teachers adequate time to prepare their lessons, and ongoing professional learning throughout their careers did make a difference. Teachers in higher performing countries such as South Korea and Finland both have less face to face teaching hours than we do in Australia. Those countries are not just focused on improved recruitment and training, but on continued systemic support for their teachers.

The NSW government document Great Teaching Inspired Learning is a step in the right direction. It places greater importance on ongoing professional learning for teachers, and on mentoring especially for early career teachers. I think its great that Australian governments are recognising the need to continually build the professionalism of teachers, rather than taking the direction of some other Western Countries who are removing the need to have appropriately qualified teachers in front of students.

However, I am yet to see any talk in Australia of a reduction in face to face teaching hours, to allow us adequate time to do our jobs well. I work between 60-70 hours per week and still find myself unable to do everything required of me in my dual role as an assistant principal and a classroom teacher. More often than not, I find I’m prioritising by choosing what to neglect. A reduced face to face teaching load would be a dream. I’d have time to plan for the individual learning needs of my class, time to reflect on their work and give meaningful feedback, time to plan engaging and authentic learning experiences. I’d have time to collaborate with peers and learn from them. Time, more than anything else, is what I’d like to be given in order to do my job well.


Education and Politics – We need to pay attention.

After working in public education for many years, I’m afraid I’m becoming a little bit cynical. All too often government education policy seems to be motivated by cost cutting, or  populism rather than a genuine desire to deliver high quality education to all childen in NSW. Many of us remember the blue print for educational reform commissioned by our previous Labor Government. More and more I fear that both of our major political parties want to turn their back on their responsibility to deliver high quality education, leaving it up to the private sector. 

Australians seem to be shifting away from a sense of collective social responsibility towards a more individualistic paradigm. With this shift, comes a change in perceptions of the role of public education. Increasingly, public schools seem to be perceived as a second rate option; a form of social welfare for those who can’t afford a private education. I don’t doubt that the vast majority of our population agree there an  obligation to provide public education, but I am concerned that an increasing number of Australians no longer agree there is an obligation to provide a quality education. 

Public Schools in Australia are doing quite well. As these charts prepared by Trevor Cobbold from reveal, public and private schools from similar socioeconomic backgrounds perform similarly on national tests. The biggest determinant of difference is poverty. He explains it in detail here. 

I am concerned however, that if we are not careful the quality of our education programs will suffer. Government initiatives, such as the My School Website, which allow schools to be compared based on national test results is already narrowing our curriculum. Some schools rort the system by persuading families of low performing students to keep them at home. In NSW a recent government wages policy has resulted in public school teachers being paid less than their private school colleagues for the first time, which will surely make it a little more challenging to attract new staff into the public sector. There is now talk of performance pay for teachers, a system which will pit teachers against eachother, breaking down the collaborative working relationships that are at the heart of much of our success.

It’s impossible to divorce public education from politics. While many of us might prefer to bury ourselves in our classroom responsibilities, if we are at all interested in the future of our education system, we  must start paying attention to the politics that surround it and get involved when necessary.

We need to inform ourselves about current debates in education and participate in the dialogue. We need to be contacting politicians, writing to newspapers and participating in social media. We need to have our voices heard by the decision makers who determine our education policies.

Who knows, we might even make a difference.