Designed to boost teacher numbers, how do they benefit the teachers themselves?

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SKE courses were one of the measures implemented to boost teacher numbers, but have they also skyrocketed teachers’ skills and confidence?

‘I wouldn’t have been accepted on a PGCE without a SKE course,’ explains Vicki Hughes, Second in Science at Southfield school in Kettering. Like many others, Vicki, who now teaches chemistry at A-level, undertook a subject knowledge enhancement (SKE) course because, as a law graduate with A-levels in chemistry and biology, she wanted to top up her chemistry knowledge before commencing her teaching training. SKE courses are designed for students who are about to begin secondary teacher training and need to top up their knowledge of a specific subject to meet the required standard for a teacher training course. This might be because, like Vicki, they have an A-level in their subject but need bringing up to date, or they studied for a degree or an A-level that’s only related to their subject of choice – or they may even have changed career.

Trainees can complete these courses, which range from 8 to 28 weeks, either before or alongside their teacher training, full-time or part-time, in the classroom or online. Tax-free bursaries (£200 per week) are available, thanks to the Department for Education funding courses in subjects where there is a demand for more teachers. These include geography, maths, biology, physics, languages, computing – and chemistry. In fact, only 79% of the target number of chemistry teachers were recruited for the academic year 2018–19 (down from 82% in the previous year) according to figures from the DfE.

‘Nationally we are still incredibly short of chemistry teachers,’ adds Vicki, who undertook her SKE course at Nottingham Trent University. ‘Many schools in my area struggle to get specialist teachers. In fact, I know at least six other current chemistry teachers that wouldn’t have been chemistry teachers without an SKE.’

But besides allowing people who may not otherwise have been able to become chemistry teachers to do so, what other benefits do these courses offer?

The hidden benefits 

Research indicates that SKE courses do succeed in equipping graduates with the subject knowledge that enables them to find employment. A team at Liverpool John Moores University looked at students undertaking science PGCEs after a chemistry or physics SKE course at LJMU in 2011–12. They reported that there was no statistically significant difference in grades for subject knowledge and overall teaching between PGCE trainees who had followed a SKE route and those who entered the course directly. What’s more, SKE-route PGCE graduates were not found to be at any disadvantage when seeking a job for their induction year.

Updating knowledge and regaining confidence

In 2016, the same team at LJMU analysed survey responses from chemistry and physics SKE students about to continue on to their science PGCE. Respondents reported feeling highly motivated and well-prepared, with a better knowledge and understanding in their subject and more confidence in their abilities to teach.

These benefits are echoed by Shagufta Shehzad, who did her SKE course at the University of East London. As she graduated in chemistry 17 years before applying for a PGCE, she wanted to update her knowledge, particularly with the A-Level syllabus, and regain her confidence. Shagufta feels she achieved these aims, and found other advantages, such as learning about the RSC’s scholarship scheme and meeting teachers and students who still provide her with support.

Improving practical skills

Many students also report that the practical element of SKE courses is particularly helpful. ‘During the course, we went through the required practicals,’ explains Shagufta. ‘This made me quite confident, and I have been organising and doing the experiments since my first placement, whereas a few of my PGCE fellows are still struggling with the practical aspect of teaching.’ Vicki backs this up, saying that the practical part of the course was hugely beneficial, giving her confidence in the lab early in her career.

Courses with a practical focus

There are a wide variety of SKE courses run by universities, schools and other organisations in England. In chemistry, the RSC approves courses that meet its list of criteria. For example, at least a tenth of the course must be spent undertaking supervised laboratory work.

Prepared for the classroom

Both Shagufta and Vicki would recommend SKE courses. ‘It is a very effective course,’ says Shagufta, ‘designed so a person can go through the entire A-level syllabus in a short time. It is supported really well.’

Vicki adds that the SKE course provided her with invaluable resources for teaching, particularly A-level. ‘It also means that you are much more prepared for your PGCE and for your future career. The SKE course was invaluable for helping me see how ideas develop from KS3 through to KS5. A concept (say bonding) was taken from KS3 right up to KS5. Having that overview and going over the content in that way really helps you to see the progression of ideas. In essence, it was just like I was able to take the experience of my tutors and use that throughout my PGCE. In my first job, my head of department regularly forgot I was an NQT.’