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There’s no such thing as a subject specialist

I have written before about my annual confusion at the point each year where the gloomy figures are released about how many teachers have left the profession. Stress related to workload and accountability are always at the top of the list of reasons, and many heads are scratched as to how to make things better. Bureaucracy is replaced with bureaucracy and before too long, the act of ensuring employee wellbeing is being looked after is added to the original workload exacerbating stress even further. ‘Wellbeing’ has become such a buzzword that it would hardly be surprising if teachers started to be asked to present paperwork with details of ‘wellbeing’ activities they have indulged in, in the same way as they are responsible for their own professional development.

Whilst this is a rather flippant analysis of the situation, my words are based on the truth as I see it. Employers in all sectors, not limited to schools, cannot be said to be meeting the mental health and wellbeing needs of their employees purely by offering ‘an early finish on a Friday’, subscriptions to voucher schemes or discounted gym membership. Employer-funded yoga sessions don’t mitigate excessive workload, unrealistic expectations or lack of recognition.

Small perks can work nicely, but they are nothing without strong leadership, the lack of which is the biggest threat to employee mental health and wellbeing. A clear vision which the whole school buys into gives teachers a purpose. Workload doesn’t seem so excessive, and expectations become more realistic if there is a very clear purpose….an end goal that the teacher wholly buys into.

No matter how strong the vision and how noble the purpose, though, there are some glitches in the education system that need some thought and discussion. Some considerable barriers are in place that may stop individual teachers meeting their own personal goals and contribute to excessive and unnecessary workload. As far as I see it, these barriers are largely operational, and are within our power to change.

When I was at school, my French teacher told me that if I wanted to be a teacher, I was going to have to study two languages at university. No school would want me if I couldn’t speak two languages, so I needed to take up Spanish. On her advice, I studied French and Spanish which I don’t regret, but my heart was already very much promised to the French language and my Spanish never nearly caught up. Sure, a teacher with two languages is more employable, but in that situation, who benefits? Not the teacher or the students, but the school who potentially find timetabling easier.

I was reminded of this earlier this week, when a science teacher who trained recently (and is now an ex-science teacher) told me about his experience. Clearly an accomplished physicist, he was awarded one of the coveted scholarships from the Institute of Physics. This country does not have enough physics teachers, that is not secret, you don’t even need to be part of the science or education community to know it. When there is such a huge shortage that we are going to pay out not inconsiderable bursaries to attract talented people to the profession, why won’t we let them train as physics teachers? Instead, they are forced to follow a programme of training that leads them to be science teachers, insisting that they teach the other sciences regardless of their knowledge and expertise….and it’s the same with chemists and biologists. Yes, they can focus on their specialism at KS4 and KS5, but why do we insist they teach outside of their specialism before this? Surely KS3 children are in safer hands being taught digestion by somebody with a biology degree than by someone who hadn’t studied the subject since school. Surely a chemistry teacher’s workload can be greatly reduced by not insisting that lessons are planned outside of their interest and expertise. Surely with so few physics teachers, we want them using that knowledge for close to 100% of the time.

I often wonder how many teachers are lost from the profession before they even apply. Aside from the horribly complicated application system and confusing number of routes, surely this issue is a deterrent for many scientists? I certainly know anecdotally of science teachers who have left the profession citing this as a reason. In the official figures this likely gets wrapped up with ‘workload’, but surely this would be a really good place to start for science teachers.

Should there be a rethink of the QTS subjects to include those who only want to teach their specialism?

Would it be a logistical nightmare for schools to rearrange their timetables so students were taught (wherever possible) by a specialist in each science discipline?

They say ‘variety is the spice of life’ and it is best to ‘add strings to your bow’, but are we in danger of becoming ‘Jack of all trades’?

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