The NSW Education Standards Authority responds to Charlotte Pezaro’s post: Specialist maths and science teachers in primary schools are part – a key part – of the solution

By Peter Lee

This blog post is a response to Charlotte’s Pezaro’s post Specialist science and maths teachers in primary schools are not the solution

To support the teaching and learning of STEM, and specifically mathematics and science, NSW has taken a number of deliberate actions and decisions.

  • Minimum entry standards have been set for teaching degrees and teaching graduates need to pass literacy and numeracy tests to ensure quality teaching.
  • New K-6 syllabuses in English, Mathematics, Science and Technology, History and Geography have been developed and are currently being taught in schools.
  • Primary teachers working in our schools can specialise in mathematics and science.

This NSW initiative for primary teachers to specialise in mathematics and science does not replicate the high school teaching model.

Primary teaching students completing a specialisation will undertake additional courses in mathematics or science, and in how to teach these subjects.

This gives initial teacher education students the opportunity to undertake a more extensive focus in these areas.

Primary teacher graduates with a STEM specialisation will have broader employment options and be available to lead efforts in primary schools to strengthen student’s knowledge, skills and confidence in mathematics and science from Kindergarten.

These specialists will help give young students more confidence in mathematics and science, so they’re well prepared for high school and future careers.  

The NESA specialisations policy does not compromise preparation of all primary teaching graduates to effectively teach across the key learning areas from K-6.

NESA continues to ensure that all NSW primary teaching degrees require discipline knowledge and pedagogical skill development in each of the key learning areas in primary.

This formal recognition of primary teaching specialisations is one of a suite of measures to enhance the teaching of STEM in NSW schools.


Peter Lee is Inspector, Primary Education, at the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA). The NSW Education Standards Authority replaced the Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards NSW (BOSTES) on 1 January 2017.

9 thoughts on “The NSW Education Standards Authority responds to Charlotte Pezaro’s post: Specialist maths and science teachers in primary schools are part – a key part – of the solution

  1. The current focus on STEM in primary schools concerns me. To educate balanced children in primary school we need balanced teachers. Balanced teachers need to teach a broad range of subjects. The humanities and the arts need as much formal recognition and emphasis as STEM.
    As an ex co-primary principal, I would hire teachers in lower primary who were not consumed by academic concepts, but who could creatively enthuse children into engaging in purposeful activity in a broad range of subjects. The more academic-focused teachers would often leave the children cold. This STEM focus leaves me cold. The agenda is clear, but I doubt if it will enhance holistic organic teaching which is desperately needed, particularly in lower primary.
    We actually need to stem the decline in artistic creative teaching if we want better results in STEM subjects, not drive a top down agenda, where children in primary are being trained for a perceived job market in the future. We need to kindle fires in all spheres of learning, not concentrate in filling the buckets of a few.

  2. Ronda says:

    I don’t see it so much as a focus, as a different way of looking. In practice in the classroom at primary level, STEM really doesn’t look too different from a well designed integrated unit, but with perhaps a little more focus on skills and processes.

    Plus, if you opt for a STEAM model, you have an opportunity to incorporate the arts.

    To be honest, it feels like it’s just fancy buzzwording for teaching interrelated science/tech/maths concepts through an investigate, design, make, evaluate process. Not a big deal, really. But hey, there’s money to be made and votes to be won, so of course those with agendas will snaffle it up as a mantra to sell books and policies.

    In my experience, most kids are highly engaged and excited by STEM/STEAM learning – creativity is easily facilitated with the right pedagogy. But I agree that if you’re just doing STEM because everyone’s doing STEM and you’re doing it to tick a box, then it’s going to be a cold experience.

  3. Peter Lee says:

    Thanks for your engagement in educational issues

  4. Ronda says:

    Where’s the specialisation policy located? What exactly is NESA responsible for, in terms of promoting this specialisation? Just that it accredits the uni courses?

    I’m undertaking the primary maths specialisation course this year through UWS, but it’s purely because I want to become better at teaching maths. So far, I’ve not seen any information through NESA or the DoE that is going to reward or compensate me (not necessarily financially) for doing this. No opportunity to go up a pay level because of the additional study (unless I use it as part of bumping up to HA accreditation – an additional workload). No opportunity to gain some kind of primary maths specialisation code for transfers etc. I’m not even sure what study leave entitlements I have, as that’s being “reviewed”, according to the DoE handbook.

    Personally, I don’t care, because I’m intrinsically motivated to undertake this additional training in my own time, at my own cost. But at a systems level, I’m yet to see anything that would provide impetus for teachers to undertake these specialisations.

    Happy, as always, to be further enlightened.

  5. David Geelan says:

    I think there are a couple of distinctions that are being elided here, and that might be useful to unpick a bit:

    1. ‘Specialist’ teachers in maths and science can work in schools in (at least) two ways: by coming in and taking over classes from their generalist colleagues or by working as professionals to enhance the teaching of their generalist colleagues. One of these approaches segregates maths and science from the rest of the curriculum and deskills generalist primary teachers, the other has the potential to enhance.

    2. The distinction between the ways in which teachers are educated and the ways in which they are deployed in schools. While they may be educated as helpers-of-colleagues they may be employed as takers-over-of-classes.

    Peter’s post describes policy in relation to teacher education. I would be interested to hear NESA’s policy and plans in relation to the ways in which primary teachers teach in government schools, and also some consideration of what might happen in non-government schools.

  6. Chris Bigum says:

    1. Where is the evidence that there will be some kind of shortage of talented folk taking on science/maths? There is good evidence to suggest that data scientists (vague I know) will be in high demand. What other fields are now crying out for people?. There have been panics about shortages in the sciences since I completed a PhD in 60’s. There has also been oversupply that no one wants to talk about.

    2. How successful has maths education and science education been in nudging kids into STEM? The record clearly shows it has been highly successful is putting kids off maths and science. Those that take it on in upper secondary often do despite their school experience. Could dig up the research study if interested.

    3. Problem is that the right answer pedagogy that dominates the teaching of maths and science is so far from the actual doing of maths and science it is embarrassing! Good science/maths has always been about asking better questions. Kids in school learn it is all about being able to regurgitate decontextualised answers.

    4. As Will Richardson wrote the other day: And as Seymour Papert so famously asks, now that we have access to pretty much all there is to know, “what one-billionth of one percent” are we going to choose to teach in school?

    5. Oh! I know. Let’s teach what we’ve always taught. That has been so successful in the past.

    6. Kids begin life as curious little learning machines. They go to school and they have that driven out of them. Encourage curiosity everywhere, not just in STEM.

    7. I wrote a curriculum rant quite some time ago if interested. Bret Victor, one of the smarter rabbits on the planet makes a similar point in his “some thoughts on teaching”.

  7. Charlotte Pezaro says:

    Hi Peter,

    Firstly, thanks for taking notice of my post on EduResearch Matters and for attempting to clarify the position of NESA. I’m from Queensland, so I did not stress too much to consult with NESA about the policy beyond the news I had access to; a rookie error for a PhD Candidate to make, and learn from, perhaps. Although, I am wondering now if the only place that regionality still seems to matter is New South Wales…

    I am guessing that the statement that NESA is responding to is this one: “It even became official policy in NSW last year when then Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, announced a plan to deliver hundreds of specialist STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) teachers into NSW classrooms.” This statement links with a news article that is, admittedly, vague.

    While you have (somewhat) clarified the NSW policy decisions, it is still not clear to me what the anticipated impacts of this policy are. I’d love to hear more about how NESA defines the “problem,” and how specialisations as you’ve described them solve this problem.

    I am also still confused about how asking primary education graduates to ‘specialise’ is helpful for a generalist teacher. Here at UQ, we are also asking students to be studying to build specialisations in their undergraduate primary degrees; we have been requiring students to do this for several years now. As our four year program of 32 courses includes 28 compulsory courses, there are only four ‘electives’ in the entire program, and these must be directed toward specialisation subjects, this requirement has narrowed any opportunity for students to study areas of their own interest (unless they have only one interest, and it is one of the specialisation fields).

    So far, I have not heard of any of our graduates being employed on the basis of their particular specialisation, being rewarded for it, or being given responsibility to support and develop the knowledge or pedagogy of their teaching colleagues. However, I have heard of our graduates, and more experienced teachers, being assigned to teach a subject area across their cohort; for example, a Year 4 teacher being assigned to teach Science for all of the Year 4 classes in the school, another teaching HASS, and another teaching Technologies. This runs the risk of perpetuating the myth that these subjects are only for special people, as I have outlined in the second section of my post.

    This is purely anecdotal, and I have not yet heard of any research or data that supports my experience. Perhaps this is a project for a future PhD candidate, or something for me to pursue once my own candidature is complete. However, you can see that my experience runs counter to the stated reasoning for such preservice specialisation.

    I am left with two questions:

    How does such specialisation, then, assist generalist teachers to teach across the curriculum, and their students to learn?

    Further, what is being done to support in service teachers to improve their conceptual understandings of and about science (or maths or technologies)?

    I look forward to your responses.

    Kindest regards,

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