Is non-specialist teaching a science problem only?

Dealing with RE nonspecialist
TES PSHE & Citizenship
Teachers TV ICT non-specialst


The scientific learned societies believe that teaching by non-specialists in the sciences is a major issue today. The Royal Society of Chemistry says on its web site:

'In January 2006, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) published a report entitled 'Mathematics and Science in Secondary Schools - The Deployment of Teachers and Support Staff to Deliver the Curriculum.'
The report showed that 44% of science teachers in UK secondary schools are biology specialists, whereas only 25% were chemistry specialists.
It is widely recognised that the best teachers are those who have specialist subject knowledge and a real passion and enthusiasm for the subject they teach. For example, Ofsted evidence shows that the level of qualification held by the teacher has a direct correlation to the quality of the student experience.
Therefore the DfES report raised serious concerns that a lack of specialist chemistry teachers, or teachers with the confidence and enthusiasm to make chemistry exciting, might turn students off continuing to study the subject.'

The NFER report commissioned by the DfES mentioned above states (p19) that

'Analysis presented in this report shows the negative impact of shortages of specialist teaching staff on the job satisfaction of teachers and departmental heads. This is in addition to the inequity between schools in the qualifications of staff teaching mathematics and science, and on top of the associations between pupil performance and teachers’ qualifications, as referenced in the Smith Inquiry and the Roberts
Report and in research on physics in schools and colleges (Smithers and Robinson, 2005). Thus, staffing and deployment in these subjects represents an area of continuing need. There has already been action and support to attempt to ameliorate the situation (e.g. Golden hellos, diversification of routes into teaching, enhanced professional development opportunities). None the less, given the evidence from this study of 25 per cent of maintained secondary schools in England, the key question to emerge is: what more can be done to increase specialist teaching capacity in mathematics and science?'

The Institute of Physics prefers to focus on Support for Physics Teaching:

The Supporting Physics Teaching initiative is intended to support specialist and non-specialist teachers who teach physics in the early years of secondary education. ... The resources are designed to help teachers to gain a better understanding of physics, to allow them to experience for themselves something of its fascination and to develop greater confidence in their teaching of it.

Implicit in their provision, though not so strong, is a need for supporting the work of those without a physics qualification, but it seems that they are mainly working at increasing recruitment of those as a priority over raising the levels of those who are already teaching outside their specialism.

The Royal Society is the home of the secretariat of SCORE (see later). Their Invigorate programme provides resource materials for use in schools. Their State of the Nation Report (number 3) made the following relevant recommendations:

(i) Clarify the type(s) of qualifications that should be included in recognising subject ‘specialism’;
(ii) Categorise fi rst degree course subjects for the purpose of identifying science or mathematics specialists;
(iii) Specify the requirements for specialism at different educational phases, from Key Stage 2 upwards.

The Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Society of Biology should explore with the
National Science Learning Centre and others in the science community the development of a crossdisciplinary ‘science for non-specialists’ course for Key Stage 2/3 teachers and higher-level teaching assistants.

The report notes that (i) there is no universal understanding, or definition, of what a ‘specialist
science’ or ‘specialist mathematics’ teacher is; (ii) the actual ways in which teachers are deployed in schools, ie the amount of time they devote to teaching certain subjects may bear little relation to their educational background (whether or not this is recorded); and (iii) the fact that little is known about the impact on a national system of teachers who have been trained outside it.'

The State of the Nation document makes the following unsubstantiated comment:
For example, it is known that a teacher’s own background in these subjects is a key factor in good teaching, but information is lacking about the proportion of currently practising teachers with up-to-date specialist knowledge in these subjects.


The Science Community Representing Education (SCORE) is a partnership of organisations that aims to provide a coherent voice for the science education community on the long-term issues in science education. The members of SCORE are the Association for Science Education, Institute of Physics, the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Science Council and the Society of Biology. SCORE is chaired by Professor Graham Hutchings FRS.

The major impetus for present focus on subject specialism is to be seen in two parts.

1. The learned scientific societies have pinned their colours to the mast of Separate Sciences, and in particular, to Triple Sciences, as the preferred dominant arrangement for teaching sciences in the 11-14 age range. The reasons for this are not made explicit, as far as I can tell, but accord well with the lead from grammar and independent schools that provide this pattern. My anecdotal experience is that the majority of learned scientific society members in positions of influence came from these two sectors.Such an arrangement provides for parity of recognition in teaching sciences, and this is related to the power struggles among scientists for recognition.

2. The learned scientific societies are concerned about the recruitment of the next generation of scientists at degree level. For physics and chemistry degrees this recruitment is around 3500 and 4500 respectively, whereas for related life science degrees (excluding medicine but including medically-related) is well over 100 000! There are, therefore, many in the life sciences to recruit to the next generation of specialist teachers, but relatively few in physical sciences.