Are you a specialist or a generalist? The chances are if you are a primary teacher you are a generalist – and proud to be so. In this country we have a long tradition of organising things so that infants and juniors are taught by the same teacher, in the same classroom, for all or most of the time.
The consensus has always been that this provides a more stable, nurturing environment for children in the early stages of their schooling. Since compulsory education first began in Victorian times, the craft of the primary teacher has been honed and developed in a holistic way.
Rather than specialise in an academic subject, the primary practitioner bases their expertise on teaching a particular age-range or key stage. Their particular skills are in teaching across the curriculum and developing the whole child.
Yet it is worth remembering that this way of organising primary education in state schools was originally adopted - in the 1870s - because it was cheaper than employing subject specialists. It still is.
But times are changing. Improved resources have brought a whole army of teaching assistants into primary schools. These not only provide valuable support for generalist teachers but are increasingly taking on specialist support roles.
Teachers too are increasingly taking on specialist duties. Subject leaders typically combine the job of generalist teacher with whole-school leadership responsibilities for one or more individual subjects.
The growth of collaboration between schools in the form of clusters, partnerships, federations and teaching school alliances, has also provided opportunities to exchange and share staff, making the appointment of specialist English teachers possible even in rural areas.
In its 2012 report, Moving English Forward, Ofsted urged the Government to provide support to increase the number of specialist English teachers at primary level. It also said support and training should be given to improve the subject knowledge of existing English coordinators.
These recommendations are supported by most subject leaders. In our recent survey of over 500 literacy teachers, 48 per cent fully supported the idea of employing more primary English specialists, while a further 41 per cent partially supported it. Less than one in eight disagreed with the idea (12 per cent).
“We need more specialist teachers and the funding to allow them to work, on a daily basis, with those children who need the support. This needs to happen, ideally, at Key Stage 1 or the very start of Key Stage 2,” Liz Marshall, a primary teacher in Kirklees, West Yorkshire, told us.
“Employ local expert literacy teachers and send them in as advisers to schools that need them,” said another teacher from rural Cheshire.
The clear message from the practitioners who took part in our survey is that all primaries should have either a specialist English teacher or the support of a local literacy adviser. Can this be done? We certainly think so.
While the historic deficit in funding has narrowed in recent years, more needs to be done to put primary education on an equal footing with the secondary sector. Providing specialist literacy support for every primary school is long overdue.
Next week: Early intervention – be sure to follow our blog over the next few weeks to find out what teachers really want to create a world-class literacy system