How to Teach Primary Without Being a Subject Knowledge Expert

Published: November 23, 2016

After achieving my BA QTS in Primary Education and English Language Studies in 1996 (at the seasoned age of 40), I didn’t feel qualified to teach much of anything. Despite going the ‘long route’ of a four-year teaching degree and having numerous courses on the best way to teach the curriculum subjects, I was only a subject knowledge expert in my degree specialism – English. Me teaching PE was a joke. Trying to corral a group of exuberant 10 and 11 year olds and teach them how to interpret scenarios through dance was a particular favourite (insert appropriate emoji here). Of course lack of self-confidence didn’t help and neither did having no behaviour management input at university. I was most definitely not a natural – I just wanted to teach those wonderful young people who had so much potential.
Does it even matter whether a teacher knows a subject inside and out? Just knowing enough to cover the National Curriculum is good enough – right? Anyone who’s watched a true subject expert teach a class knows the answer to that question. There’s something almost magical about having a teacher who really knows their topic. I grew up in the US and had subject specialists teaching me from the equivalent of KS2 upwards. Should the UK follow suit? Subject Leaders are super resources but your school may not be lucky enough to have a full complement. So what can a primary teacher do if knowledge is lacking?

Extra Training

If you’re lucky and your school has the budget, you might be sent on a course that will turn you into a subject knowledge expert. The trouble with courses is that many focus on skills rather than substance. I remember roomfuls of bored teachers being more interested in what was on offer for lunch than the course content. Ironic when you think we were there to learn teaching best practices. I also recall a four-hour course on how to coach football. Even now it makes me laugh. My secret weapon was to rely on the pupils who played footy for a team – they knew more about the offside rule and what constituted a penalty than I ever would.
The National College for Teaching and Leadership fund Subject Knowledge Enhancement (SKE) courses, which seem to be very worthwhile, according to a study carried out for the DfE. The trouble is that although these courses are widely available to trainees, there are only a few Teaching School Alliances in England that give access to existing and returning teachers. Another disadvantage is that a lot of the courses are aimed at secondary level, eg, biology, chemistry and physics. This means that existing teachers will be extremely lucky if they can find a relevant module and get the funding to attend.


Hurray for the internet! In-depth, online research helped me throughout my twenty years of teaching. From lesson plans to how-to videos, whatever you need to know is out there. The only downside to researching topics is the time it takes. It’s bad enough planning lessons, marking and setting targets, without having to top up knowledge – even with PPA time. There must be a better way.
This could be seen as a long-term strategy but schools should take advantage of bespoke elearning content. Edtech developers work alongside a subject expert to create dynamic, interactive content. This not only relieves pressure on teachers who don’t know enough about a subject, it also cuts down on prep time. Once content has been created, it can be shared throughout the school and beyond. To make it more cost-effective, cluster schools could join forces to cover all areas and share content. This type of elearning content focuses on the visual learner and is highly engaging. As non-experts can learn from bespoke content, it will form the basis of a more confident blended learning scheme. Eventually, you may develop into a subject knowledge expert after all.