Subject saharas – the new postcode lottery?

According to a study by the Open Public Services Network, pupils in some parts of England are unlikely to secure qualifications in subjects that could be vital to their job prospects, such as science and languages, as they find themselves living in a “subject desert”.  They may well discover their opportunities are curtailed, because every school within a neighbourhood has decided not to offer certain key subjects.

Roger Taylor, Chair of OPSN and RSA Fellow explained “These data show that children’s educational opportunities are defined by where they live. We can see that the curriculum taught to children in poorer parts of England is significantly different to that taught in wealthier areas.”  The data reveal that children in Knowsley, Merseyside are half as likely to study separate GCSEs in biology, chemistry and physics as children in Buckinghamshire.  While in the London Borough of Kensington, children are four times more likely to study a modern foreign language GCSE than children in Middlesbrough.

Curriculum inequalities such as these have long lasting effects.  One of the key reasons talented pupils from less affluent areas do not progress to top universities is because they haven’t studied the right subjects at school and therefore do not meet entry requirements. They find the door was locked long before they arrived to knock at it.

So why are there such geographic variations in subject availability?  The OPSN concludes that it reflects decisions made by schools motivated by league table position. But as a Head and geographer, I fear the cause of these ‘deserts’ may have more to do with the scarcity of resources, in this case teachers.

Every year heads compete for a diminishing number of specialist maths and physics teachers – those with a subject-specific degree.  The pool of this talent is drying up. The Education and Training Foundation calculated that only 10% of maths teachers under 34 have a maths or maths-related degree.  Maths and physics teacher training posts are going unfilled, while graduates in these disciplines are snapped up by other sectors. The Institute of Physics estimates that 1000 new physics teachers are needed each year, but recent data suggest only 600 are being trained and not all will stay in the teaching profession.

It is a seller’s market. With more vacancies than teachers, in some schools positions will inevitably go unfilled. Classes can’t be left untaught, so enter the geographer turned mathematician, the PE teacher turned physicist.  Good classroom skills and a reasonable intellect will get non subject specialists so far, but as the syllabus becomes more complex, ‘generalist’ teachers – through no fault of their own – begin to struggle. Schools have little choice but to look for softer curriculum options, such as teaching ‘dual award’ science rather than separate biology, chemistry and physics.

We must address this issue, but it takes time and money to make deserts bloom.  The current debate about teacher qualifications must move on from the Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) alone, or whether nuns and ex-soldiers make good teachers.  We must recognise the real problem and admit the need for both pedagogic training and subject expertise.

The government is making a start in offering golden hellos to teacher training recruits and relaxing immigration requirements for teachers in shortage subjects. These are welcome moves, but alone they will not resolve the deficit.

The education profession is brimming with creativity, and there may well be more inventive solutions to the current problem, given the freedom to think outside the box.  Could classes – in different schools, counties or even continents, but assembled via technology – share a teacher? Could a great teacher take a ‘virtual’ lesson? This might work particularly well for A level classes where maturity and self-discipline are greatest and where specialist teachers are in shortest supply.  In a world where remote interaction is becoming the norm for a range of services, it may be that an excellent virtual lesson is better than an unsatisfactory actual lesson or indeed no lesson at all.

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