Making a move: How can I switch from primary to secondary history teaching?

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I feel convinced of the need to keep good, committed teachers in the profession, and am therefore pragmatic about the fact that teachers sometimes find themselves falling ‘out of love’ with their current situation even if they still feel committed to the overall endeavour of education.  For the vast majority this tells them it is time to move on, to find a new school situation, which will re-energise them or accord more with their own values. However, on a regular basis I’m approached by primary teachers seeking to make the move into secondary history teaching, and by secondary history teachers seeking to make the move into primary.  Where this is the case, I think we owe it to young people to find ways to support colleagues to explore and make this move to retain their experience and commitment to the profession. 

This blog will share the advice I have often given to those seeking to make the primary to secondary history move, not because I think this the desired trajectory but because I feel unqualified to offer advice in the opposite direction.  It also comes bearing a caveat that schools seeking to shortlist for a post will take different positions on this matter, often depending on how difficult they find it to recruit; secondary history is one of the more competitive areas of the teacher workforce as reported by the NFER, with 2020 recruitment to postgraduate secondary history ITT routes at 175% of the target number.   However, interestingly in the small sample of Heads of History I approached in preparing this blog, all said that ‘depending on the field’ they would consider an application from a primary trained colleague if they had demonstrated their commitment to teaching history and gained relevant experiences to prepare them for the role.

What can primary teachers looking to move into secondary history teaching do to prepare?

‘Significant’ Secondary Experience

Ten years ago, ‘transition teachers’ employed to work with Year 7 ‘nurture’ groups were a common feature of our schools.  Such positions are now less common but, where they do exist, primary colleagues are often recruited to the post.  It is via this mechanism that I have seen a few primary teachers gradually make the transition to KS3 and later KS4 and KS5 teaching.  Middle schools, also on the wane, have similarly provided an ‘incubator’ of sorts for colleagues wishing to make the move to a different phase.  Indeed, gaining ‘significant’ or ‘sufficient’ experience in a secondary setting has been critical for these colleagues to develop their awareness of the challenges of the phase, prove they have developed their subject knowledge to be able to teach the curriculum effectively and to gain and understanding of the ‘pitch’ and pedagogical approaches for older children.  In the absence of nurture groups and middle schools, gaining longer term maternity type contracts within a humanities department, rather than simply day supply, can provide a helpful steppingstone into a making an application for a permanent post in secondary.

Additionally, examination boards will sometimes consider employing examiners with degrees in a related subject to mark scripts.  Exploring opportunities to engage in GCSE examination marking can also help to allay fears of potential employers and prove your understanding of examination specifications and the demands of GCSE teaching.

Demonstrating you’ve taken steps to gain significant ‘in practice’ experience will be an important factor in an application. 

Subject specific enhancement

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The subject knowledge and subject specific pedagogical demands of teaching at primary and secondary are different.  Primary teaching requires highly specialised knowledge but is distinct from that required to teach a single subject at secondary level.  For a colleague seeking to make the transition from primary into secondary it is therefore very important that engagement with subject specific knowledge and pedagogical enhancement is prioritised.  The real question is how to go about this?

Gain a further qualification:

Depending on your degree background and confidence with your historical subject knowledge (both the substantive and disciplinary) undertaking a further qualification, such as a MA in history or MA in history education.  This has the benefit of demonstrating you are up to date with recent scholarship and disciplinary practices through an evidenced route.

Engage in significant but personal subject knowledge enhancement:

There are many opportunities to undertake personal subject specific enhancement in history both personally and from within the history teaching community. 

Initiatives like the History Teacher Book Club on Twitter provide a great mechanism for engaging with that history teaching community and joining conversations with established history teachers about the ways they use scholarship in their teaching.  Similarly, the BeBold History Network is another free initiative linking academia to the classroom. These are simply two examples, engaging with the online history community will quickly alert you to many more!   

Meanwhile, joining the Historical Association, subscribing to Teaching History and taking advantage of their branch meetings and education webinars, gives you access to a community of practice including academics and decades of classroom action-research by history teachers.  Within the HA resources is a whole course of materials for ‘beginning history teachers’ which those seeking to deepen their understanding of history specific pedagogies and disciplinary thinking would find especially helpful.  They also have a website called ‘One Big History Department’ which acts like an online staff room style community for history teachers and hosts blogs and resources from teachers across the country.

Similarly, the Schools History Project run webinars, conferences, and publish resources for history teachers all of which provide a brilliant insight into the work of history teachers, and are well worth the attention of a colleague seeking to move into the secondary phase.

There is enormous value in engaging with other secondary history teachers regularly, perhaps through joining a local network or via a local school history department.  Taking the opportunity to reflect on the practical implications of your reading and thinking with practising teachers is a very useful step for recontextualising your current understanding of pedagogy and historical thinking. 

Being direct in your application

In the application letter it is crucial that you make the case explicitly for why you are seeking to make the switch between phases AND how you have prepared for the move – don’t try to gloss over it.  A formal qualification will tick a box on a person specification instantly, but a well thought out, clear and evidenced explanation of your efforts to develop your historical knowledge and pedagogical understanding can also achieve the same outcome.  Ensuring you emphasise the benefits of your primary experience to the secondary setting may even mean your application has an ‘edge’ over other candidates.  Most importantly (and a point made strongly by a Head of History colleague), make sure you respond to the job specification and school to which you are applying.  Your statement needs to address your suitability for that specific job!

Making the move

Swapping school phase as a teacher isn’t easy but it is possible, with a little preparation and patience. If it keeps you in the profession, it is worth it. 


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