Short of some subject teachers? Redirect existing staff

Reading time: 3 minutes. Relevant programme: SSAT Non-Specialist programmes

SSAT senior education lead Andy Williams considers the benefits, and the practicalities

There are myriad reasons why we are failing to hang on to teachers, and we know what they are. Curriculum and assessment changes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the swathe of changes that have been brought to bear on schools. Add the funding crisis and the sheer volume of work teachers have on their plates, there is little wonder one educationalist described it as ‘a relentless policy onslaught.’

Yet while there is a severe shortage of teachers in key subjects such as maths, science and English, schools are having to make some staff redundant. We need to think long and hard about what we are doing to teachers in the pursuit of education for our young people.

When considering teacher engagement, most if not all the protective factors can be thought of under the umbrella of wellbeing. School management listening to the opinions of teachers and acting on it; general communication in school – not just about accountability measures but about the people at the front line; job satisfaction and the conditions for enhancing this; a shared responsibility for all staff; and the ‘community feel’ – that gut feeling you get when you walk into a school that truly cares.

In September 2016, the National Foundation for Educational Research published a report, Engaging teachers: NFER analysis of teacher retention. This was based on a comprehensive survey of teachers’ attitudes to the question of remaining in the profession entitled ‘Should I stay or should I go?’

NFER’s findings indicated that, indeed, many teachers needed to know they were valued. Job satisfaction, having adequate resources, reward and recognition and being well supported by management were factors associated with retention of teachers. The report goes on to talk about teachers being ‘engaged’ and the strong interaction between engagement and retention. In fact, of the teachers surveyed, 90% of those who describe themselves as engaged are not thinking of leaving, whereas the disengaged are much more likely to be considering leaving.

Teachers are adept at adapting their lesson planning to engage learners, so in the same way it may be useful to consider how leaders engage teachers. In the NFER report the engagement questions considered:

  • teachers’ opinions of the school management
  • communication within the school
  • how satisfied they are with their job
  • opportunities for professional development
  • resources available to them
  • whether they feel part of the school community.

To take just one of these: Educational Policy Institute research shows on average teachers in England spent only four days a year on CPD in 2013, compared with an average of 10.5 days across the 36 countries covered by the analysis (Pither 2017).

Keep the staff, fill the gaps

So perhaps redirecting staff – with suitable selection, training and development – into shortage subjects could help to alleviate both problems. Jonathan Hipkin, a business director at Hays Education, argues this represents ‘opportunities available for school staff willing to be versatile and flexible in what they teach – if they have the right skills and support.’ Increasingly, he adds, ‘schools are looking in-house, seeing what expertise they’ve got within their own teams, and turning their attention to teachers who are willing to expand their roles. If you’re a headteacher and you haven’t had the response to a job advertisement you hoped for, or poor quality candidates, then you’ll look in-house.’

And as blogger Learning Spy wrote back in 2013, ‘I used to work for a headteacher who was fond of saying “We’re teachers of children, not teachers of subjects.” This was justification for having non-specialist teachers in certain shortage subjects. Like any axiom, there’s some truth in this statement: teaching children is an art unto itself. There’s definitely a case to be made for the fact that I might do a better job of teaching a maths lesson than a random maths graduate.’

A report out this February, Rapid Evidence Review of Subject: Specific Continuing Professional Development in the UK, from CUREE (Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education) and UCL’s Institute of Education, commissioned by Wellcome Trust, gives an indication of the challenges and how they can be tackled.

Effective CPD can be focussed directly on developing knowledge or practice in a subject area, or focussed on developing an aspect of teaching and learning in ways which are contextualised for specific subjects, the report notes.

Different subjects, similar CPD

The evidence indicates that, while there are differences between effective CPD in maths, science and English, the CPD in all three subjects has more similarities than differences – meaning that it largely adheres to extended, cyclical and structured development.

According to CUREE/UCL, ‘differences between these three subjects relate to: how the subject content connects with the curriculum and pre-existing teacher knowledge; how new approaches and new subject/pedagogic content knowledge are supported through classroom materials for different subjects; and how CPD content reflects the values and nature of the subject discipline in question.

‘For example, while the need to align instruction and follow-up support was key in all three subjects, there were nuanced distinctions in how this was done:

  • In maths, principles and theory were taught explicitly at the start to support depth of thinking and learning.
  • In science, teachers learned through experimenting with new materials followed by activities to transfer those materials into classroom practice.
  • In English, new approaches were introduced in principle and followed by learning through the juxtaposition of a range of readings about reading and comprehension, direct comprehension of challenging texts and challenges to assumptions about learners.’

So while there are challenges in teachers moving effectively into different subject areas, they are not insurmountable. The outcome is likely to be more effective for the school in many cases than a succession of supply teachers. And developing your own staff members should not only give you a more satisfactory outcome. It also helps to maintain the motivation and wellbeing of all your staff.

Adapted article from SSAT Journal 11


The SSAT Non-Specialist programmes combine subject knowledge and subject-specific pedagogy, delivered over a three-day course, to equip your teachers to teach up to GCSE*(standard pass) English, maths or science with confidence. Upon completion, they will be able to produce inspiring and engaging learning activities and make accurate assessment of pupil progress. Find out more and book now – places still available for July 2018.

Read on the SSAT blog: Three keys to recruitment and retention

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