Building subject knowledge in primary schools

Written by: Neil Almond | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Developing the subject knowledge and sequencing skills of teachers is crucial, certainly in light of the revised national curriculum and change in focus of Ofsted inspection. Neil Almond explains the approaches being implemented across the Woodland Academy Trust

I challenge anyone to find one educator within the primary sector who has sat through a whole staff meeting and not once thought that their time could have been better spent doing something else.

I have been through many such meetings during my career, but one particularly memorable one was when an external provider demonstrated the benefits of engaging, using all five senses, with a raisin.

We were to draw our attention to the feel of the raisin in our hand; listen to the sound of the raisin by bringing it close to our ear; put the raisin close to our nostrils in steady intervals to notice the different ways our nose interprets its presence; observe it closely with the naked eye; and finally, place the raisin on our tongue and hold it there for 30 seconds so we could taste and feel the changes to the raisin the longer it sat in our mouths.

I don’t remember the purpose of this exercise (nor what sound the raisin made). What I do remember is it made no difference to the outcomes of the class that I then went on to teach the next day.

Time is precious – we should be maximising every possible minute to build and develop teaching and learning practice so that students reap the benefits.

If there are lessons to be learnt from the Covid-19 lockdown in relation to staff meetings, it is that we can drastically rethink what we do with the time we utilise for meetings.

When you think about what focus some staff meetings should take, one simple yet often overlooked topic in primary-level education is subject knowledge.

From September at Woodland Academy Trust, we are scheduling meetings with the sole purpose of developing the subject knowledge of staff.

At primary level, there is no question that teachers are generalists. They are often expected to deliver subjects that many of them would not have studied post-GCSE. A useful insight into this would be to survey the qualifications of your workforce in the foundation subjects. How many are teaching geography having never studied it past year 9?

The revised national curriculum for England, introduced by the coalition government in 2014, was deliberately slimmed down to allow teachers the professional judgement to design a curriculum with the needs of their pupils in mind.

And now, as we all know, Ofsted is looking at how coherent our curriculum is, and how strong the wider curriculum is. Now is the perfect time to put the building of the subject knowledge of primary school teachers at the forefront of our thinking.

It is not a silver bullet, but its effects could ripple into many areas of our work, including by developing a cohesive curriculum that delivers academically while also considering the wellbeing of our students.

To develop a rich, coherent curriculum, strong subject knowledge must come first. Consider that an early career teacher has been tasked to sequence the following lessons in history:

  • Expansion of the Roman Empire in Britain.
  • Life as a Roman soldier.
  • Roads.
  • Baths.
  • Life in Roman Britain.
  • Julius Caesar.
  • Boudicca.

How could the teacher best arrange this content so that it was delivered in such a way that each element was built on sequentially, so that instead of students seeing this as seven isolated lessons, they saw a wider narrative?

The answer lies in the teacher’s own understanding and knowledge of the Roman period. Julius Caesar is without a doubt a significant Roman individual worth studying, however he failed twice to expand Rome’s reach into Britain. Therefore, studying how he took Rome from a Republic to dictatorship is important, so it would make sense to first teach his attempted invasions in both 55 and 54 BC.

Next was the successful invasion of Britain in 43 AD by the Emperor Claudius. Understanding what life as a Roman soldier was like and how they were both well-trained and disciplined, helps to explain why that invasion was successful and the Romans were able to defeat the Iron Age tribes that inhabited the island at the time.

After that, it would make sense to look at a general overview of the impact of life in Roman Britain, before going in depth and spending a lesson on baths and roads.

Finally, it would make sense to look at the revolt of the Iceni tribe under the leadership of Queen Boudicca. The battle in which she was defeated was called the Battle of Watling Street, which is also the name of a Roman road that stretched from Dover to North Wales. Of course, the final lesson should mention that the Romans continued to rule Britain until approximately 410 AD. That gives us the following sequence:

  • Julius Caesar.
  • Life as a Roman soldier.
  • Expansion of the Roman Empire in Britain.
  • Life in Roman Britain.
  • Baths.
  • Roads.
  • Boudicca.

Creating this sequence would have been impossible if the teacher in question did not have the subject knowledge to make the connections within the relevant time period. The teacher who knows this well can then focus their precious time and energy on devising ways to make the content come to life for their students. Once the subject knowledge has been learnt, the teacher can then look at the pedagogical content knowledge that would be required to deliver that sequence of lessons.

This should also indirectly impact positively on student wellbeing as teachers will feel better prepared and more confident to teach the content, enabling students to feel more successful in their learning, making them happier individuals. Success breeds motivation, not the other way round.

A report published this year, Great Teaching Toolkit (Coe et al, 2020), breaks down the best bets we can deploy to make sure our teachers are the best they can be. The first priority they discuss is to “understand the content they are teaching and how it is learnt”.

Going further, it is important that not just the current teacher knows this sequence and the reasoning behind it, but that all staff know the curriculum.

Deeper conversations can be had when teachers from different year groups discuss what students have learnt, instantly creating richer, more powerful and more purposeful conversations.

Teachers in other year groups can understand how what they are teaching relates to other content that has been, or soon will be, taught, and when teachers go into other year groups, they will immediately feel confident to deliver the content for that year group.

  • Neil Almond is the assistant headteacher of teaching and learning across Woodland Academy Trust in Kent. Follow him @Mr_AlmondED

Further information & resources

  • Coe et al: Great teaching toolkit: Evidence review, Evidence-based Education, June 2020:

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