Smoothing the transition to specialist teaching of the sciences

Client: Gatsby Charitable Foundation | NFER Project Contact: Marian Morris

The Gatsby Charitable Foundation aims to support science and engineering education through a series of programmes and grants. Gatsby are currently exploring the possibility of encouraging the implementation of a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) in mathematics and/with physics as one means of smoothing the transition to more specialist teaching of sciences in schools. To this end, they have commissioned NFER to look at the extent to which the current model of PGCE in initial teacher training (ITT) is fit for purpose in meeting the needs and desires of schools with reference to teaching in physics and mathematics. The research will also consider what advice may need to be given to ITT providers in order to improve the provision of specialist teachers at key stage 4.

Research questions

The team at NFER will seek to address the following research questions.

  1. How are science and mathematics teachers currently deployed in schools?
  2. Why are they deployed in this way? Is the deployment the result of historic, pragmatic, pedagogic or ideological imperatives and how far is it amenable to change?
  3. What will be the impact of the planned/possible changes in the science entitlement at key stage 4 on the need for specialist teachers and teacher deployment?

Impact and outcomes

A report will be produced by the end of July 2009. This will present the findings of the research, together with recommendations for the future. An executive summary of the main finding and recommendations will also be produced.

Research design and methods

The research design will build up an understanding of specialist science teaching by addressing each of the research questions in turn, drawing on qualitative and quantitative methods as appropriate. The design will comprise:

NFER feels that it is important, as far as possible, to draw on existing research data and it has identified a number of areas where secondary analysis of the existing data could be undertaken to identify and clarify the relative amounts of time specialists spend on teaching their own subject and how much time they spend teaching general science or other non-science subjects. This secondary analysis will draw on data from the Secondary School Curriculum and Staffing Survey (DfES, 2003) as well as data from the NFER study on the deployment of mathematics and science teachers and support staff in secondary schools (Moor et al., 2006).

Case studies involving interviews with key stakeholders in about 20 schools will seek to ascertain why particular models of staff deployment in science education are used. It will aim to identify any existing barriers to adopting single science teaching and deploying staff with skills in both physics and mathematics. The research will also explore schools’ preferred mode of delivery.

A postal survey of senior leaders and heads of departments in a nationally representative sample of schools will build on these case studies, exploring the rationale behind existing models of practice and providing an indication of how such models are amenable to change.

The final phase of the project will seek to provide deeper insights into the views of headteachers, physics and mathematics staff and ITT providers on the current and future models of science and mathematics teaching. Up to 12 focus groups would be run using futurising methodologies in order to achieve this understanding.


The report will be published by Gatsby Foundation and should be of relevance to ITT providers, policy makers and school staff working to deliver the National Curriculum in science.

Time scale: May 2008 - August 2009

NFER Project Code: SMT


Department for Education and Skills (2003). Secondary Schools Curriculum and Staffing Survey: November 2002 (Provisional) (Statistical First Release 25/2003). London: DfES.

Moor, H., Jones, M., Johnson, F., Martin, K., Cowell, E. and Bojke, C. (2006). Mathematics and Science in Secondary Schools: the Deployment of Teachers and Support Staff to Deliver the Curriculum (DfES Research Report 708). London: DfES.