A Deep Dive Into Subject Knowledge Enhancement

In almost all educational quality debates, teachers are considered the critical factor determining the quality of our educational systems. There is broad consensus that “teacher quality” is the single most important school variable influencing student achievement. So, how do we make sure that teacher standards hit the mark in all subjects?

Subject Knowledge Enhancement (SKE) courses enable new teachers entering the profession, existing teachers who are switching to a new subject, or those teachers looking to upskill in their current subject, the opportunity to enhance relevant professional knowledge and attain subject confidence and critical core competences.

Here we take a closer look at Subject Knowledge Enhancement, starting with an update on what SKE is and why it is so important.


What is SKE and why is it important?

Overview: Subject Knowledge Enhancement aims to make teaching a viable career path to all graduates. All SKE courses are designed to bring a candidate's knowledge of a specific subject up to secondary teaching level.

The most vital role of SKEs is supporting pre-ITT (initial teacher training) candidates to gain the depth of subject knowledge and skills they need to gain Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) and be able to teach proficiently in their chosen subject. Importantly, SKE courses open up the possibility for students to train in a different subject to their degree.

Providers: SKE courses are provided by School Direct partnerships, ITT providers or third parties. A directory of providers can be found on the government’s website here.

Content: Subject Knowledge Enhancement courses include lectures, practical work, tutorials, and self-study, and cover the topics needed to teach at secondary level. SKE courses range in length from 8 to 28 weeks, and most students complete them either before or alongside their teacher training, full-time or part-time, in the classroom or online.

Purpose and benefits: SKE is a scheme initiated by the Department for Education (DfE) to boost teacher numbers in shortage subjects.

Dr Sam Sims, Lecturer at the UCL Institute of Education, elaborates: “SKEs allows initial teacher training to be more responsive to the teacher labour market”. It enables school leads to recruit candidates into subject areas where they have a shortage.

A 2020 report by The National Association of School-based Teacher Trainers predicted that some subjects may still be short of teachers in 2021 – chemistry; design & technology; mathematics and physics were highlighted as key subjects not attracting enough applicants. The report also noted a glut of both physical education and history teachers entering the market in 2021.

SKE courses have many hidden benefits. They are important for ensuring quality teaching in shortage subjects, offering those entering the profession increased competency, and enabling existing teachers to upskill. How often do we hear of teachers teaching subjects they aren’t fully trained to teach? Science teachers being asked to instruct lessons in IT, or Art teachers stepping in to teach English isn’t unheard of.

Outcomes: Research indicates that SKE courses do succeed in equipping graduates with the subject knowledge that enables them to find employment. SKEs provide invaluable resources and many students report that the practical element of the training is particularly helpful as they embark on a teaching career.

Subject Knowledge Enhancement Funding: Students don’t pay course fees for SKEs. Programme costs are funded by the DfE at a unit fee up to £200 per week per participant and bursary funding for participants is £175 per week of study in the 2020–21 academic year.

Eligibility: Eligibility requirements differ across institutions and courses but will usually include at least a 2:2 degree of any discipline. Note, applicants who have a degree in their chosen ITT subject awarded in the previous 5 years are not eligible for a funded SKE course.


What is currently on offer for SKE?

The DfE currently funds SKE programmes in:

  • biology
  • chemistry
  • computing
  • design and technology
  • English
  • languages
  • maths
  • physics
  • religious education


How will be the new Institute of Teaching help improve SKE?

A new Institute of Teaching is set to be established in England to provide teachers and school leaders with prestigious training and development throughout their careers.

The national initiative will deliver evidence-based approaches to teacher training, mentoring and early career support, alongside leadership courses and continued professional development. The Institute will become England’s flagship teacher training and development provider.

The Institute, which will begin offering initial teacher training courses from September 2022, will also deliver the government’s early career framework for new teachers, as well as national professional qualifications and teacher CPD (Continuing Professional Development) for more experienced staff. At full capacity it is expected to deliver training for:

  • Around 1,000 ITT trainees annually
  • Around 2,000 Early Career Teachers and 2,000 mentors annually
  • 1,000 National Professional Qualification (NPQ) participants annually

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said:

“The Institute will revolutionise teacher training and make England the best place in the world to train and become a great teacher.”


Who should consider SKE?

SKE courses are suitable for:

  • Students embarking on IIT with a degree that isn't in the subject they'd like to teach (or at least closely related)
  • The IIT student’s chosen subject was studied at A-level, but not to degree level
  • A student entering the teaching profession with relevant professional experience, i.e. an accountant looking to train as a maths teacher
  • Current teachers considering SKE that is related to CPD initiatives

Applicants must have an offer from their ITT provider in order to apply for a formal DfE-funded SKE course.


As a school lead, how do you know if an applicant needs SKE?

The need for SKE is usually identified by a school or provider during the recruitment and selection process. This could be:

  • during discussions with an individual before they apply
  • from the application form
  • during the applicant’s interview
  • when the applicant is undertaking school experience


How does Covid-19 and the changing nature of teaching affect SKE?

Education has changed dramatically as a result of the pandemic, with the distinctive rise of e-learning. Teachers’ workloads, wellbeing, recruitment and retention have also been affected by the national crisis.

For new students entering the profession, Covid-19 has led to a reduction in capacity for school-based training placements. As a result, SKEs will become an even more important part of the architecture of initial teacher training, as will being able to study subject knowledge enhancement online. This will also be a huge benefit to existing teaching staff, as they will have more opportunities to upskill in a flexible way.


To better understand the teaching needs of your school, download The Teaching and Learning Handbook. The Handbook shares best practice from researchers and sector leaders to offer you new, innovative ideas for implementing new teaching and learning practices in your school.

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