Subject responsibilities in primary: doing less and doing it better?

I read this post about subject specialisms in primary on Sunday and it inspired me to share how we have approached this in years 5 and 6 this year.

As upper key stage 2 phase leader, I decided that we should try something a bit different this academic year: class teachers taking responsibility for different subjects across the phase. I’ll explain what it looked like, the upsides, the downsides and some things to think about if you want to try this sort of set up out in your school.

What it looked like

There were four classes in my phase this year and the subjects I wanted to try more of a ‘secondary set up’ for were computing, science, French and RE. The rest of the foundation subjects are combined through topics. We each taught our subject to all four classes in the phase over two afternoons. Essentially, doing the same lesson four times over except for alterations due to differentiation and the like.

The upsides

Without doubt, the quality of the learning in these subjects have improved and there’s two main reasons for that I think. The first is that we are drawing on people’s strengths. The truth is the teacher who took on French can do a better French lesson than I ever really could because she’s fluent in the language and has far superior knowledge of it. This makes her ability to plan effective lessons greater than mine. When I’ve had to teach French before I’ve felt like I’m clinging for dear life to the scheme of work and whiteboard resources and honestly that it no way to teach quality MFL. Well, I don’t think it is – even at primary level. Equally, I can deliver a better computing lesson than her because my knowledge and understanding of the subject is better and I come at it from a completely different angle with tons of ideas. Luckily for me our strengths fitted neatly into my plan: the teacher who took on science was science coordinator in his previous school and lead them to being awarded the science mark and the other teacher was really into RE and in fact she has just been appointed RE coordinator.

The second reason I think learning improved was our planning workload decreased.  I could focus on computing and free up my mind of RE, French and science. I was teaching one lesson four times over and had more time to plan and prepare it. We were doing less and doing it better. And not that everything is about Ofsted, but it’s worth mentioning our subject knowledge and set up of these lessons across the phase was commented on favourably during our inspection back in November.

As well as improving the quality of learning, which is what every decision is ultimately about, there have been other upsides. I would argue it’s gone some way to help year 6 prepare a little better for secondary transition. Getting to used to having four different teachers throughout the week is quite odd at first in primary, but is nothing compared to the different teachers they will have next year.

For me, as phase leader, it has been awesome actually teaching all classes in my phase. I know year 5 this year better than I’ve ever known year 5 before. Teaching them all, even just once a week, gives you invaluable insight and has made me a much more informed phase leader. In fact, that side has been good for all of us. We all know all the pupils in the phase much better and it has made us more more of a team as opposed to four separate classes.

Finally, and it’s important, the children like it. We recently couldn’t do our swap for two weeks in the run up to carnival as we had costume making workshops and the rest of it and children actually asked when we were going to swap again – they missed it.

Downsides

The main pitfall is that our timetable was inflexible for those two afternoons. We had to all do those lessons at the same time as we were swapping classes. However, even as I’m writing this I can see the upsides to being inflexible – we held each other to account. I know teaching your own class all the time means that you have the freedom to switch and move things about, but the reality can be, in some cases, it means the first thing to go when push comes to shove in a busy week might well be something like French. This didn’t happen with us as we had to commit to our timetables and stick to it.

Some teachers might also miss teaching the other subjects, but we’ve found we’re really happy with this system and have enjoyed getting really stuck into our subjects.

Things to think about

I was lucky, the strengths of my team matched the needs and was key to raising the quality of the learning in those subjects. However, succession planning may not always be easy. The teacher who taught French is leaving us at the end of this year, but I couldn’t be luckier because the teacher joining us to replace her happens to be a languages nut and French speaker – I know! I did say lucky. This may not always be the case, but I figure we will deal with that when the problem arises.

Transition between classes took some thinking about. Having the whole school on the move at once is part of what secondary schools do, but less so for us. It was rare, before this, to have the whole phase moving between classrooms at once. Planning as little movement as possible between floors during one afternoon got that sorted pretty quickly and it really isn’t an issue.

All in all, if your team are up for it and you have the strengths to match the needs, it might be something worth considering. It won’t be for everyone I’m sure, but it has worked for us and we’ll be doing it again next year. As the content of the primary curriculum gets moved up a notch, I can’t help but think that needing more subject specific teachers – or teachers who can focus on less subjects and get to grips with them better – will become more common, particularly in upper key stage 2. What do you think?

10 comments

  • I like to call this “the middle school model” 🙂

  • This is a great idea and I definitely think that it is a useful model for children to be used to before they move to secondary school. Moving from one teacher all the time to several each day is certainly an enormous challenge for some children.
    To an extent, I do this in my current role. Although I teach Y2, I spend one afternoon a week teaching Spanish to Y3/4. Without blowing my own trumpet, and as you mention in your example above, the MFL offering in LKS2 is much stronger when I do it as a languages graduate, rather than someone who’s bumbling through a scheme of work, whilst recalling what they did in their O Levels 20+ years ago. There is certainly a lot of scope with this.
    I’m now thinking about how this could work in KS1, where we currently teach everything through topics. Thanks for planting the seed!

    • Claire Lotriet

      Thanks Simon! Yeah primary MFL is a tricky one for schools to do properly I think. Let me know how you get on if you make any changes.

  • Thanks for sharing that. Would you mind sharing (screen grab) of you timetbale – of the whole week. It would be interesting where you fitted it all in!

    Also
    1) How far in advance did you work to decide to change the timetable – like if one teacher of the group was on a course or Year 6 has a visitor in?

    2) Did you think about a two year rotation of topics/subjects so the whole Upper Key Stage curriculum was covered? When reading this, I assummed that you’d have taught Space to Year 5 and 6 in Science. So next year you won’t be teaching it but had Year 6 this year already covered it in Year 5. Or did you just teach the Year 6 coverage this year to both cohorts?

    I love the idea!!

    Cheers

    Jon

    • Claire Lotriet

      Hi Jon.

      I will do that for you! We have a weekly staff meeting so on the occasions where we had to work around someone being out or a class being out, we had about a week typically.

      We do indeed have a two year rotation of topics as we were one and a half form entry and so had mixed year groups classes throughout the school, which means you need two year rotations rather than yearly rotations so you don’t have classes repeating topics. Two years ago we made the decision to employ another teacher in UKS2 so we could have straight year 5 and year 6 classes, but we kept the two year topic rotation to stay on track with the rest of the school. So when planning topic rotations we look at all the year 5 and year 6 science topics, for instance, and plan them in over two years.

  • we work with some very small primaries with mixed classes. One school in particular dies this two or three times a week.
    I’m not a teacher, and it’s a while since my own children finished at primary, but this swapping around (in small schools) feels like it works really well.
    The one thing that I have noticed is how much more active the TAs (gawd, I hope I’ve got the right acronym) seem to be when this happens.

    • Claire Lotriet

      Thanks Mike. Anna has left a comment asking how it could work in smaller schools. Maybe you could point her in the direction of the smaller schools you know who do it?

  • Great in a school with multiple classes in a year group.We are a six form primary and would love to do this! Job shares split goes a way towards this, but not sure how we could do this effectively in a small school; I’d love to hear of examples that are effective in smaller schools.

    • Claire Lotriet

      Thanks for your comment Anna. I think you’re right – it would need to look different in smaller schools. Initially, I’d think one person doing all the KS2 RE for isntance but obviously they couldn’t do the same lesson repeatedly. Same subject, but different lessons within the subject.

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