Press release

Initial Teacher Training can fail to equip science teachers with sufficient subject knowledge to teach, study finds

Many newly qualified science teachers complete their initial training without sufficient subject knowledge to teach, according to research commissioned and published by the Wellcome Trust. The report is launched today at a closed event where the Wellcome Trust will propose four practical solutions to ensure that all science teachers are equipped to teach at an appropriate level.

Initial Teacher Training (ITT) is expected to prepare trainees to teach science across the National Curriculum, but the report clearly shows that the majority need further support to develop the necessary breadth and depth of subject knowledge and subject-specific teaching skills to do so.

Dr Hilary Leevers, Head of Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust, commented on the findings: "Students' enthusiasm for and performance in science is heavily influenced by the subject knowledge of their teachers, so it is worrying that delivery of such knowledge in teacher training is highly variable and often insufficient."

In December 2009, the Wellcome Trust commissioned Roger Lock and colleagues at the University of Birmingham to carry out a study of the subject content of one-year postgraduate training courses for secondary science teachers. Aware that most secondary science teachers are required to teach outside their science specialism, the aim was to understand how trainees acquire subject knowledge, as opposed to general teaching skills.

The study reveals a wide variation in the amount and nature of coverage of science subject knowledge in training courses and highlights particular uncertainty about the coverage of subject knowledge in the school-based component of training.

"Given the Government's drive towards training teachers in new 'Teaching Schools', it will be vital to ensure that these schools are better equipped with the specialist expertise needed to givea solid understanding of science and how to teach it," said Dr Leevers.

The report also confirms widely held concerns around subject specialism on ITT courses and reveals a huge imbalance, with biologists far exceeding chemists and physicists (5:3:2). This shortage of specialist physics teachers is compounded by the finding that nearly one-third of trainees who regard themselves as physics specialists have a degree with limited identified physics content.

Most trainees ending up teaching outside their main degree specialism, so it is not uncommon to find teachers with no education in their non-specialist science subject since the age of 16. Trainees are expected to carry out a 'subject knowledge audit' to identify areas where their knowledge needs improving. However, the survey reveals that trainees find this audit process inefficient and there is a consensus that science knowledge is best developed as and when it is needed.

Overall, the report concludes that it is unrealistic to expect trainee teachers to develop secure subject knowledge and topic-specific teaching skills in their specialist and non-specialist areas during a one-year ITT course. The Wellcome Trust proposes four practical solutions to ensure that all teachers are equipped with sufficient subject knowledge to deliver a high-quality science education when they hit the classroom. These are:

treating the ITT year as the first stage in a continuous process of professional development extending across the early years of teaching designating trained teachers as 'specialist' (qualified to teach science subjects to A-level) or 'associate specialist' (qualified to teach science subjects to GCSE level) at the end of the training year, to provide transparency on teachers' abilities intensifying the policy drive to recruit physics and chemistry specialists the creation of a single, authoritative collection of resources to provide accurate and validated science subject knowledge for trainee teachers and NQTs, for all science topics in the National Curriculum.

Sir John Holman, Senior Fellow for Education at the Wellcome Trust, concluded: "Initial teacher training is just the beginning of what should be life-long professional development. We must ensure the long-term support of recent initiatives such as the National Network of Science Learning Centres, and the bursaries that enable teachers to attend their courses, that have been proven to improve science teaching and student performance."