Charles Tracy, Head of Education, Institute of Physics, UK
Laura Childs, Senior Policy Adviser, Institute of Physics, UK

As the professional body for physics in the UK and Ireland, the role of the Institute of Physics (IOP) is to create the conditions for physics to thrive. A substantial part of our work is aimed at improving both the overall numbers and the diversity of young people taking physics. We are doing this through our Limit Less campaign and through improving access to high-quality physics teaching in all schools (IOP, 2020a).

The biggest single influence on the likelihood of a student continuing with a subject is the quality of teaching that they experience. Therefore, we have set ourselves the challenge of ensuring that every school pupil has access to a specialist physics teacher and that those teachers are given an entitlement to develop as professionals.

In our work we have engaged with teachers from across a wide range of subjects, developing an understanding of the impact that subject expertise has on the quality of teaching and learning. In December 2020, we published ‘Subjects matter’ (IOP, 2020b), a report that looks at subject-specific continuing professional development (CPD), drawing on a wide range of evidence from across the UK, alongside a teacher survey carried out by Shift Learning and detailed discussions with over 50 experts in the field.

While our starting point for this work was within physics, it is clear from our engagement work that the importance of subject-specific CPD is common to all subjects, and we are advocating for the development of a centrally organised system of ongoing subject-specific CPD to include all specialisms.

This article presents the main arguments of the ‘Subjects matter’ report, why its findings are important for the whole teaching profession, and how a systematic approach to career-long professional learning would be of benefit to all subjects – ultimately driving up engagement and attainment, and equipping young people with the tools that they need to thrive in a knowledge-led economy.

Subject knowledge for teaching

At the heart of learning a discipline is a teacher’s knowledge about that discipline and how to teach it. We are calling this ‘subject knowledge for teaching’; it is broadly made up of three components:

  • substantive knowledge of the content, comprising the facts, explanations and ideas of a subject or discipline (Counsell, 2018)
  • disciplinary knowledge relating to how practitioners think and behave and how they established the substantive knowledge
  • pedagogic content knowledge (PCK) of how to develop students’ substantive and disciplinary knowledge.

Each of these components is essential to high-quality teaching. Developing and improving all three strands of subject knowledge for teaching starts in initial teacher education (ITE) and should continue systematically into teachers’ early careers and throughout their professional lives.

The importance of subject knowledge

At a system level, research indicates the value of continuing to invest in teachers’ subject knowledge for teaching. High-performing education systems tend to have high investment in CPD, and CPD has been found to have a greater impact on student attainment than other interventions such as implementing performance-related pay for teachers or lengthening the school day.

The situation in the UK is marked by low investment in CPD. The proportion of school funding allocated to teachers’ professional development fell to an average of 0.55 per cent in 2018/19 for schools in England – the lowest since 2011/12 (DfE, 2019a). There is also huge inconsistency between schools and local authorities, with annual expenditure per student on CPD ranging from £97 down to £10 (SchoolDash, nd)

This contrasts with Singapore, where up to 100 hours per year are made available to teachers for CPD (Schleicher, 2018). According to the Teaching and Learning International Survey, just under 50 per cent of teachers in England had done some curriculum-related CPD in the previous year, compared with 80 per cent in Singapore and 90 per cent in Shanghai (DfE, 2019b).

Teacher morale and retention

Subject-specific CPD can positively impact teacher retention in various ways: improving confidence, increasing teachers’ sense of their own effectiveness, making them feel part of a community of professionals, and conferring greater agency and autonomy over their professional learning. However, low-quality CPD is damaging to morale and is part of a vicious cycle that drives good people out of teaching.

The profession as a whole is currently marked by a failure to keep up with demand, as not enough new teachers are coming into the system to replace those that are leaving each year. In 2018/19, recruitment targets were missed in a range of subjects, including computing, chemistry, maths, modern foreign languages and physics, as were the overall targets for secondary and primary teachers in England, Wales and Scotland. The rate at which teachers were leaving the profession increased each year between 2011 and 2015.

With attrition outweighing recruitment, increasing numbers of schools cannot get their required complement of teaching staff in some subjects. This leads to more teachers being deployed to teach subjects ‘out of field’, exacerbating feelings of not being as effective, removing autonomy and agency, and reducing educational outcomes – and, as such, making subjects less attractive to students.

Improving the provision of subject-specific CPD offers a means to breaking this cycle.

Current teacher experience

As we have seen, the experience of teachers varies. We know that there is some excellent subject-specific CPD available and that teachers benefit substantially from this training. However, these programmes are often limited to a few targeted subjects, forming a

patchwork with little linkage between them. With no quality assurance mechanism, the quality of CPD available more generally is variable and often low, which can discourage teachers from taking part again.

In our survey, involving 518 teachers and conducted in 2020, 32 per cent of respondents stated that they typically spent less than a day on subject-specific training in a typical year, and 15 per cent said that they never or rarely completed learning in this area. Unsurprisingly, 58 per cent of all teachers surveyed believed that they did not receive enough subject-specific training in a typical academic year.

Teachers say that they find subject-specific CPD more beneficial to their teaching than generic CPD, and evidence suggests that it is more effective in terms of impact on pupil outcomes. Despite this, most CPD accessed by teachers in the UK is generic, and schools that are seen to be struggling in terms of pupil outcomes and/or inspection results appear less likely to prioritise subject-specific CPD over more general provision.

What would improved teacher experience look like?

While we have come across examples of excellent practice, this is clearly not universal. How can we ensure that the positive experiences of some teachers are shared more widely across the profession as a whole?

Through our research, speaking to teachers and experts and collecting ideas from a seminar in January 2020, we are proposing a systematic approach to CPD provision that would deliver a world-class system of subject-specific CPD for teachers across all subjects. Such a system would be characterised by:

  • being accessible and available to all teachers of all subjects, to improve participation and teaching quality across the curriculum
  • being universally high quality, removing the regional variability that exists in the system now
  • preserving choices for schools to enable them to address specific needs
  • catering to the diverse needs of teachers with different backgrounds and at different career stages
  • tracking and recording the outcomes of professional learning, enabling teachers to monitor their own progress and development
  • enabling schools to deploy teachers to their proven strengths and identify skills gaps
  • improving continuously
  • driving culture change in schools so that CPD is highly regarded and sought out.

Towards a unified system of subject-specific CPD

To deliver these systemic characteristics, we have identified a set of coherent ‘building blocks’ – interconnected elements that would help to construct a coherent and complementary whole and ensure that high-quality CPD is available for all teachers. These elements include:

  • in-school CPD champions who work with teachers and senior leaders to identify and meet the needs of teachers and their schools
  • a subject component to the national standard for teaching that specifies the subject knowledge required for teaching in each subject, helping teachers to identify their needs and record and take ownership of their professional learning
  • topic-level accreditation to enable teachers and schools to track and record the outcomes of professional development and make deployment more effective
  • multiple providers to ensure that teachers and schools have access to a variety of quality-assured programmes that address their differing needs
  • a national standard for subject-specific CPD, outlining the required knowledge for CPD leaders within a subject, to provide assurance of quality through a professional qualification, which could be administered by subject organisations
  • evaluation designed into programmes to drive continuous improvement.

Figure 1 shows how these elements could work together in a world-class system of subject-specific CPD.

Figure 1: An illustration of the elements which could be combined to build a world-class system of CPD

The beginnings of several of these elements already exist. For example, each nation of the UK has a national standard for teaching. However, while each refers to the need to demonstrate good pedagogic and subject knowledge, this could be strengthened with a subject-specific component that makes clear what good subject knowledge for teaching means for each subject. The government should work with subject associations to create appendices showing what subject knowledge is required for a given subject – in effect, making the national standard a framework for becoming a good teacher in a particular subject.

Similarly, the English DfE’s new ‘Early career framework’ (2019c) is a positive step towards providing high-quality CPD to teachers in the early stages of their careers, but could be strengthened by the inclusion of a subject-specific element.


The proposals outlined here, and detailed comprehensively in the ‘Subjects matter’ report, address an essential question about quality and standards across the teaching profession: how do we provide teachers with opportunities to continually improve in their subjects? In many other similarly skilled professions, such as healthcare, law and engineering, ongoing specialised training is an accepted requirement throughout one’s career. Yet for teaching there is no requirement for subject-specific learning beyond initial teacher training. This comes at a cost to teachers, to the quality of the education system as a whole, and ultimately to children and young people, whose opportunities to excel in their chosen subjects are reduced.

By addressing the variations between schools and local authorities that currently exist, the system we envisage would help to advance the ‘levelling up’ agenda. A system that ensures a consistently high quality of subject specialism among all teachers would improve teacher morale, improve teaching quality, and drive greater opportunity, particularly for the most disadvantaged children.

By building up subject expertise where it is needed across all subjects, we are giving students real choices about the academic pathways that they choose to follow. More confident teachers, teaching more engaged students, will support the development of skills and improve life chances for our young people.

With thanks to Communications Consultant Dan Watson for support in preparing this article.


Counsell C (2018) Taking curriculum seriously. Impact 4: 6–9.

Department for Education (DfE) (2019a) Expenditure by local authorities and schools on education, children’s and young people’s services in England, 2018–19. Available at: (accessed 4 August 2021).

Department for Education (DfE) (2019b) The Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2018. Available at: (accessed 4 August 2021).

Department for Education (DfE) (2019c) Early career framework. Available at: (accessed 4 August 2021).

Institute of Physics (IOP) (2020a) Limit less: Support young people to change the world. Available at: (accessed 4 August 2021).

Institute of Physics (IOP) (2020b) Subjects matter: A report from the Institute for Physics. Available at: (accessed 4 August 2021)

Schleicher A (2018) World Class: How to Build a 21st-Century School System. Paris: OECD Publishing.

SchoolDash (nd) 2019 Department for Education data via SchoolDash. Available at: