Ask the Subject Experts new

We asked our Subject Experts the question. “What are the main challenges for your subject??” Here is what they told us;

Helen Snelson – Secondary History

There are a lot of challenges facing history teachers, and so I am going to hone in on three that are different from each other, but have wider resonance.

i) The need to better support SEND pupils to access and make progress in history. A high quality history education is an entitlement for all pupils, regardless of prior attainment. The Ofsted History Research Report published in July 2023 identified SEND provision in history as a relative weakness in many schools: “In most cases, this was because teachers focused on adapting the immediate task so that pupils could complete it, instead of building their knowledge and skills and addressing gaps so that they could access the curriculum in the longer term.”History is, by definition, a subject that has a lot of words and a lot of abstract concepts. Adapting our teaching to make the subject accessible to all is a challenge. A good place to start with thinking about this would be to read Richard Kerridge’s article ‘Learning Without Limits’ in Teaching History 168 from 2017. A new section of the Historical Association website will be set up in the next few months and will focus on making history accessible.

ii) The need to make sure that the content that we teach students is both relevant to them and connected to academic scholarship. We are fortunate that many academics are keen to work with teachers to share their knowledge and thinking. Work is ongoing to ensure we teach more diverse and representative history in classrooms. This year will also see more focus on the role of school history in education in an age of climate crisis. If you have not yet connected with this work, then a good place to start would be to engage with these free CPD modules from UCL.

iii) Returning to the Ofsted Research Review. It found that: “Curriculum plans relating to disciplinary knowledge were typically not ambitious enough.” While we have made a lot of progress with coherent substantive knowledge over the last few years, it appears that our teaching of coherent disciplinary knowledge is lagging. If this is a focus area for your department, then a good place to start with your thinking about this is the Historical Association’s ‘What’s the Wisdom On…’ series, which introduces the professional practice and thinking behind each concept.

Catherine Bickersteth – Primary History

Time constraints in the primary curriculum can negatively impact non-core subjects in primary schools. The multi-faceted factors of disadvantage, economic pressures, health concerns and the aftermath of the disruption of the Covid 19 pandemic years, wear away at the space allotted on timetables for some foundation subjects.

History can be a source of engaging, enriching and enhancing learning experiences, which if planned and taught well, can make a huge impact on pupil progress and deepen learning. History involves children applying and developing skills in literacy, mathematics, grows wider knowledge and understanding of the world, critical thinking skills, ICT and in fact, touches upon every curriculum subject of the wider school curriculum. However, this can result in a risk that history as a subject becomes watered down in the primary curriculum, in a race to devote more time to the core subjects. School leaders should guard against allowing sequences of learning to merge history into a muddied mix of subjects, but should be rigorous in seeing that history specific learning outcomes are explicit. A challenge can be ensuring that teacher subject knowledge includes substantive knowledge with an understanding of chronology that includes broader period features. (Jenner, 2021).  Committing time for staff CPD in history can be a challenge for schools balancing all its priorities. Cross-curricular planning where this is part of a school curriculum does not mean that history needs to lose its essential subject specificity.  Effective teaching and curriculum design for history should reflect the relationship between substantive and disciplinary knowledge, so it is important for teachers to keep this in mind when planning enquiries in history (Ofsted 2021).

One challenge is to use rich and relevant resources in history lessons, being confident in adapting off-the shelf resources and looking beyond the usual. This need can be met by exploring the many dedicated history websites, podcasts, museums and via the Historical Association. A mix of strategies including oracy, adaptive teaching and assessment needs to be planned to ensure that history is upheld as a vibrant and accessible subject in the primary school curriculum.  Teachers need to remain focused on developing strong history subject knowledge themselves, being aware of how to develop a wider body of history substantive content that includes greater diversity at the heart of history, not just as part of themed history months.

History Curriculum with Tim Jenner 17 September 2021

Ofsted Research review series: history Published 14 July 2021

Kit Rackley – Secondary Geography

The new academic year might see a change of government, it might not. However, political challenges will continue to strengthen and I would argue become increasingly at odds with the ideals of ‘good’ and ‘moral’ geography. For instance, the crackdown on the right to protest has mostly been in response to activists pushing for climate and environmental justice. Geography teachers must stand firm and continue to inform young people about the realities of the climate crisis and the scientifically-mandated actions that must be taken to address it, which includes systemic change. How to square that circle? It will be a collective challenge for sure and one we must rise to.

Lynn Welsh – Secondary Art and Design

The main challenge for Art, Craft and Design teachers is developing an in-depth and sequential curriculum that allows for creativity, divergent thinking from pupils and the ability for staff to respond to pupil needs and adapt effectively. There is so much pressure on Art staff to develop a consistent curriculum that many are too worried to stray from the set path and classes can suffer as a result as teaching becomes too formulaic, lacks energy and over time can become stale. The way forward is to allow for some flexibility, for creative leaps to be taken when appropriate and for staff to fully consider the needs of the pupils in their group whilst still teaching the skills and knowledge that have been set out in the scheme of work. It’s ok to adapt, to change, to build on or diversify if this best suits the direction of travel with certain groups. Art teachers, by nature are creative beings and we must allow for them to work differently within set parameters to ensure engagement from all parties.

Dr Linda Whitworth – Primary Religious Education

Religious Education has moved on substantially since the Commission on Religious Education’s Final Report. This report and the Ofsted Research Review (2021)  are changing the landscape of RE.

There are 3 main challenges for Primary RE going forward:

  • Developing Agreed Syllabuses and primary school curricula to reflect more nuanced understandings of lived religion and worldviews. Pupils need to learn about different ways people live religiously and non-religiously and how religion and non-religion can influence individuals’ and communities’ ideas, beliefs and practices. Teachers can use a range of examples of different ways to live a faith and, where possible, draw from their local communities, e.g. different denominations in Christianity or different groups in other religions show a range of understandings of the same religion, especially through their practices.
  • Responding to the Ofsted Research Review’s identification of different types of knowledge: substantive knowledge, ways of knowing and personal knowledge in school curricula, recognising how these knowledges enrich pupils’ understandings of their own and others’ beliefs. Teachers need to plan how they will use substantive knowledge to support pupils’ own thinking as well as adding to their subject knowledge.
  • Developing and tracking deepening knowledge and understanding as pupils move from EYFS to Year 6. Time in RE is limited, so it is important to select material and teach ideas which pupils can understand and learn from incrementally. Teachers should identify how what they are teaching builds on prior learning and how it provides building blocks for future learning and share this with colleagues.

Kate Percival – Primary Languages

Going into next academic year, the challenges for MFL are three-fold in my opinion. Firstly, as in any new year, the aim is to ensure that languages are seen as an integral part of the primary curriculum, one which makes meaningful links with learning across other subjects such as English, grammar, geography and PSHE.  Start as you mean to go on with your new class with a growth mindset to learning languages (which they will pick up on), ensuring that MFL sessions are delivered as consistently as possible. Remember, MFL lends itself really well to very short (five-minute) re-visits of language throughout the week to embed learning and once this becomes routine, you will reap the rewards in terms of retention.

Secondly, teachers new to the profession need to know where they can access quality support for language upskilling, lesson resources and subject knowledge CPD. For example, offers a CPD journey open to members and some to non-members which can be accessed remotely. Everyone’s needs are different and there is something for teachers at every stage of their career to benefit from.

Thirdly, transition between year groups and key stages is something which always seems to receive a negative press. It needn’t be something elaborate which takes copious planning but a simple conversation or transition document outlining attainment and confidence, for example, along with a bank of vocabulary, phrases and language learning skills which the children have both encountered and retained would be really useful information for their next teacher. In the same way, Y6 teachers can make contact with the head of languages at the feeder secondary schools to ask if they have a set format for how they would like to receive information, if they are part of the SixIntoSeven portal for transition or if there is any scope for a sample lesson or Q&A session with the high school to give pupils a flavour of what to expect at KS3.  In short, when it comes to transition, anything is better than nothing and whatever you manage to do will benefit both their subsequent teachers in terms of planning and setting as well as the pupils’ motivation to continue learning languages which can only be a good thing!

Sara Davidson – Secondary Languages

The main challenge for secondary languages remains recruitment: of pupils as well as of teaching staff, and one leads to the other. The British Council’s latest ‘Language Trends’ survey highlights the issues we face. Languages are perceived to be difficult, and, in order to reach a certain level of automatization, languages do require commitment by the learner, i.e., regular practice of vocabulary, grammar, speaking and listening, just like a musical instrument requires regular practice or an athlete needs to train. In a society where we are expecting immediate results and immediate access to information more and more, this has become a challenge. Language teachers are working hard to experiment with different approaches to language learning to increase uptake, enjoyment, and success. There has been criticism of the GCSE examinations being an obstacle to success too and this summer’s recent exam entry figures paint a depressing picture. German, Spanish, and French have seen a drop in the number of A-Level entries this year, with German seeing the largest percentage drop (17%) of any subject on the curriculum, from 2675 to just 2210 entries. German also saw a fall in GCSE level entries, dropping by almost 6%, whereas French and Spanish saw a small rise in pupils taking exams, rising by 0.3% and 4.6% respectively. There has been a slow decline in numbers as well as in the perceived value of language learning since the government made them optional at KS4 back in 2004. Is it any wonder that specialist MFL teachers are becoming a dying breed?

Allie Beaumont – Primary Science

With the release of the February 2023 Ofsted report, Finding the optimum: the science subject report I am sure that the main challenge for subject leaders / teachers is to take on board key messages from the report and relate these to  their own setting. A group of highly regarded members of the science community, read, analysed and discussed the report before producing a useful document, Implications for practice in primary science as a result of ofsted’s findings. This was published May 2023. They suggested that there were 5 key implications for our practice.

  1. Professional learning and development:
  2. Connected curriculum:
  3. Progression in disciplinary knowledge,
  4. Purposeful assessment:
  5. Evidence-informed pedagogy:

Each of the ideas are explained, with a section describing what this means for primary science. A strength of the document is the identification of a key message for each implication. It is these key messages that subject leaders should consider and analyse in relation to their own settings. The challenge will be addressing these issues – formulating an appropriate action plan

If you have any questions you would like to ask our experts, then please contact us.

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