In a bid to solve the recruitment crisis for schools, it is often mooted that non-graduates should be encouraged to become teachers. But many argue that a degree-level qualification is a must-have, for a number of reasons – subject knowledge being only one. Pete Foster gives his thoughts…


I was an NQT standing in the book cupboard wondering what to teach Year 7. The trouble was I didn’t know these books. Other teachers came in, grabbed thirty dusty copies of something and walked out all whilst I dithered in unfamiliar territory. Michael Morpurgo didn’t feature in my childhood, or in my degree.

Most recently, I’d studied Peter Carey’s reimagining of Great Expectations: Jack Mags and the lesser-known plays of Ben Jonson. But surprisingly neither featured in the Year 7 set texts. I had trained to be an English teacher in part because I didn’t want the conversations about literature from school and A-Levels and degree to end.

Yet a disconnect between graduate study and teaching practice lingered. What was my degree for? If all I was teaching was children’s literature and basic creative writing, did I really need it? How did it help me teach a Friday period five lesson about newspaper columns, a topic I had never studied? How did it help in the design a theme park unit we wasted the summer term on?

Of course, it wasn’t that none of my degree was relevant. Lots of it was. When I taught Frankenstein and Macbeth and Dubliners I was drawing on, often quite recent, deep study. I enjoyed teaching those texts more than anything else, perhaps because I could talk about them confidently.

As a teacher, you inhabit a world – a subject domain – that is probably quite clear to you but is foggy and unknown to your students. Your job is to map the terrain with them. Our aim is not that students know everything, not that they complete your subject. Rather, it is that students reach the point that they can navigate it, at least to an extent, by themselves.

I’m sure at one stage or another we’ve all been told we just need to be a chapter, a page, a lesson ahead of our students. But if we really want to help them find their way, we can’t just stay a couple of weeks ahead of our students. We can’t just know the content they will learn really, really well.

Lee Shulman, the great thinker in teacher education, emphasised the importance of knowing the grammar or syntax of our subjects. For Shulman, a teacher’s subject knowledge contains within it the rules and reasons why of the domain. Our understanding of the curriculum isn’t limited to its contents. We see connections and choices invisible to our students.

Our teaching isn’t on a track that we can never deviate from. Lessons can frequently take a student-prompted detour. A student asks, How can historians know this? Or a similar question arises in Science on our understanding of the subatomic. The teacher answers from the deep well of domain knowledge.

Of course, a History or Science teacher will often teach beyond the realm of their expertise. Some degrees map better onto the curriculum you’re likely to teach. Teaching topics we haven’t studied is not impossible. In fact, it’s probably quite frequent.

An anatomy degree does little to prepare you to teach the solar system. A specialism in twentieth-century history doesn’t prepare you to teach the Anglo-Saxons. But you probably know more about how truth claims are made and tested in your domain than someone outside of it. In this way, we’re able to offer students what Michael Young calls a ‘relationship with knowledge’ – an understanding of how and where and why knowledge is generated in each domain.

If this makes graduate study seem detached from the classroom – a sort of background knowledge we may need to call upon – plenty of research suggests subject knowledge is a core pillar of successful teaching. A degree certificate is not an end in itself. It should speak to knowledge, understanding and ability.

Better qualified teachers get better results. Teachers with poor subject knowledge improve rapidly as their subject knowledge improves. Strong knowledge of the pedagogy of your subject appears to lead to better teaching.

None of this means that non-specialists can’t be excellent teachers or that primary teachers can’t do the miracles they somehow manage to each day. It isn’t an argument for anything really, other than recognising the steps we’ve taken to arrive at the present.

All these benefits of a degree could, of course, be acquired through other means. If you haven’t studied the subject you teach, you can learn the grammar underlying your subject and you can forge that relationship with knowledge.

The disconnect between study and practice lingers perhaps because schools don’t often make the connection in planning CPD. When I was an NQT, department meetings consisted of admin, information and the occasional teaching idea like throwing a ball to ask a student a question. Whilst an individual teacher’s expertise will likely only cover a part of the curriculum, collective expertise is incredibly powerful and comprehensive. Having teachers present, lead on planning and coach others through difficult topics can help us all to use prior study effectively. It is a massive shame when your subject-expertise atrophies through disuse.

In the debate over which qualifications teachers should have, I don’t really offer you answer. For now, most secondary teachers get a degree close to the subject they will teach before they join a training route. Other possible entries to teaching are available. Graduate and postgraduate study confer benefits that are often hidden or elusive. But we benefit nonetheless.

In the book cupboard, I ended up picking thirty copies of Private Peaceful and shuffling back to my classroom to get reading. I loved it. We studied as we would loftier texts. We read it and discussed the characters’ motivations. We debated the intent of the writer. We drilled down into the imagery of birds and nature. You can see studying a Year 7 text, or any topic, as something basic, beneath the level of your expertise. Or you can see it as inducting the students into the methods and habits of thought used to study at a much higher level.


Pete Foster is an English teacher and Assistant Headteacher for Teaching and Learning at an all-through school in Somerset.

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