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Guardianship of subjects in 2016

Annette Smith

I very much welcome the revival of the British Curriculum Forum and was delighted to attend the recent conference “Investigating Knowledge and the Curriculum”. My reason for attending is that I Chair the Council for Subject Associations (CfSA), which is the umbrella body for subject teaching associations.

I guess that I have a unique point of view as Chair of CfSA as I look at, and try to support, the efforts of the leaders in subject specialism across the curriculum areas. The conference mentioned above helped me to bring together in my thinking two aspects of the current discussion about subjects, and it is these that I would like to share in this blog.

Firstly, there is the pedagogical argument for subjects. I was, until a couple of years ago, CEO at the Association for Science Education so I was well-versed in ideas and the accompanying research about how children develop and learn science – the travels through “children’s ideas” or “misconceptions” to counter-intuitive explanations of observable phenomena, and alongside the cognitive development, the refinement of fine motor skills.  I was also very well aware of the challenges that we faced when we needed to access language and mathematical aspects of science, and the commonalities with aspects of design and technology when it addressed motor skills and problem-based learning.

pedagogical subject knowledge is not sufficiently valued as separate from subject expertise

Looking further across the curriculum from science, however, in my current position I find all subjects have parallel concerns. Teachers of history work with children’s developing ideas of time and geographers with the senses of place and distance for example.  All of the subject experts have based best practice on this body of knowledge and the developments of it as more research is carried out.  My concern, based on this realisation, is that this pedagogical subject knowledge is not sufficiently valued as separate from subject expertise, and that it is not sufficiently understood and applied in all schools, but particularly in primary schools.

recent changes in the education of teachers have promoted the generalist without sufficiently valuing the subject specialist

My second concern (linked to the above) is political and organisational. The recent changes in the education of teachers have promoted the generalist without sufficiently valuing the subject specialist.  The concentration of expertise in the subject associations has a less obvious route through to mainstream practice than previously when all subjects had a voice with the policy makers and their advisory bodies.  Instead there is a piecemeal approach.  Some subjects are working with government on specific projects and some subject specialists are supported into the profession by generous bursaries.  There are initiatives where there should be embedded curriculum support.  Classroom teaching suffers as good teachers are fast tracked into managerial and leadership roles and solid classroom time spent developing as a subject teacher is eroded.

I was encouraged, however, by colleagues at the BCF conference. Christine Counsell, in her talk entitled “Curriculum enquiry, curriculum leadership and the knowledge debates: a time of opportunity for the BCF vision?” addressed this issue. In her opening remarks, Christine stated that “senior curriculum leadership needs to be knowledgeable about the complexities of subjects”, and that “different subjects hold knowledge together in different ways…….”. This points to a way forward, which is a fix rather than a solution, but is still a positive step.

Moving on from that conference, the next step in this conversation is the publication of the “Standard for teachers’ professional development” which crept out in the middle of the maelstrom that was July 2016. The report and the standards say what one might expect – sustained, planned CPD, good – one-off unconnected courses, bad – but it also clearly sets out the case for subject specificity in CPD and as such reinforces Christine Counsell’s point.

To summarise, then, and to move to proposed action. There are documented challenges facing subject pedagogical knowledge (see reference 4, for example). The teaching and learning strategies that are subject-focused have less attention than previously in teacher education and in schools.  The subject teaching associations have largely survived the financial crisis of 2008 and are still developing and pushing forward thinking about subjects.  What is needed immediately in schools, even before the fix to the teacher education system which is urgently required, is strong leadership and understanding of the complexities of subjects by school leaders, aligned with high quality, sustained subject specific professional development.



Council for Subject Associations website

Guardians of Subject Expertise – the Subject Associations in 2015 (2015)

British Curriculum Forum conference “Investigating Knowledge and the Curriculum” 18 June 2016. Quotes are from my notes, any inaccuracies in reporting mea culpa.

  • Sliding subject positions, knowledge and teacher educators, Brown, Rowley and Smith. BERJ Volume 42 Number 3 June 2016 Wiley