Secondary education: teaching specialism

AGCAS editors explain what makes a successful secondary school teacher and provide an overview of secondary education.


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This article has been written in partnership with AGCAS.

Secondary education is compulsory for children between the ages of 11 and 16, but as a secondary school teacher you may be teaching young people up to the age of 18. This depends upon whether your secondary school has a sixth form or not – many secondary schools in metropolitan areas, for example, no longer have a sixth form, so post-16 education is provided by separate sixth-form colleges. This can make a difference in where you choose to teach, particularly for science teachers who are required to teach all sciences to key stage 4 level and only get to specialise in their degree subject in post-16 education.

The national curriculum sets the pattern for secondary education but there’s huge diversity in how this pattern works in schools, particularly with the increase in the number of specialist schools and academies. Secondary schools also offer subjects outside the core national curriculum list, such as drama, dance and media studies, and there are initial teacher training (ITT) courses available that specialise in these.

Changing qualifications

Historically, A levels have been assessed by a single exam that is taken at the end of the course and dealt with by external examiners. However, due to the pandemic, for the last two years assessments have been made by secondary teachers. External exams are expected to return in 2022 but this depends on the Covid situation.

New T level courses are being introduced. These will be of an equivalent standard to A levels, offering a technical, as opposed to academic, route. The new T levels are being rolled out in phases.

Do you have what it takes to be a secondary school teacher?

You have to like teenagers to teach at secondary level and not feel intimidated by them. Empathy and sympathy are important, as well as organisational and time management skills. It’s also vital to be calm, as you will come up against pupils who will test your patience.

Energy and enthusiasm are essentials, but that doesn’t mean you have to be wildly extroverted or exceptionally charismatic. Some of the best teachers are quiet people who love their subject and can transmit this enthusiasm to children.

Keep on learning while teaching others

There is still an emphasis on exam success and this can put pressure on teachers. You can have days that are frustrating and distressing, especially if you work with children who have difficult backgrounds. However, it can be rewarding to know that you can really make a difference. You get a chance to pursue a subject you really love and keep on learning while teaching others. It’s also never dull working with young people.

This article was last updated August 2021.

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