The new Federal Minister for Education Jason Clare announced last Friday he would convene a Teacher Workforce Roundtable focussed on tackling the nationwide teacher shortage, to be held on August 12. The roundtable will include principals, teachers and education experts.
The critical shortage of teachers is a crisis of our own making.
We knew the teaching workforce was ageing a long time ago and we knew we would reach a point where we would have so many teachers retiring that we would need to increase the number entering to make up the gap.
Too many pundits are blaming the stress of the pandemic – but this is not the consequence of COVID. It is a failure of workforce planning by successive governments and now we all have to take some responsibility for – and find new ways – of working together to address the problem.
First, let me say that the ministers, both Federal and State, must urgently address the disparity between state schools and private schools in the recruitment process.
As head of the University of Sydney School of Education and Social Work, I observe closely what happens to students in their final year who are able to apply for Conditional accreditation, and to teach up to a recommended 0.6 of a full time teacher’s load. Some of my colleagues have wisely pointed out the risks of mixing work and study, and the potential to hasten burnout.
The final year, with its long placement (internship), and opportunities for well-managed Conditional accreditation, is also a great opportunity for schools to assess a student teacher’s capacity and whether they are likely to fit within the school culture.
Independent schools use this as a kind of probation period, and some provide scholarships to students in the final year of their teaching degrees AND, if they work out well, guarantee them permanent, secure jobs. That’s not something public school principals are able to do. I hear from so many public school principals who say they would love to be able to offer similar incentives.
Instead, the majority of young students eager to stay in the public system have to work years as casuals before they can get a permanent secure job. We have outstanding student teachers who are committed to the public system but the public system is not committed to them.
Why is the public system so hamstrung? Our students, not just at Sydney University but across the nation, should be snapped up and looked after, instead of being abandoned to such a casual approach.
We need to value the contributions of those who have committed to a career in education. Instead, there is a chorus of critics. The immediate previous federal minister for education Stuart Robert attacked public school teachers as duds without a shred of evidence. While it is pleasing to note that the new minister has a vastly different approach, the general attitude of politicans and pundits is poor. As my colleague Nicole Mockler has written elsewhere, there is a lot of focus on “teacher quality” but none on system quality. Poor performance is blamed on “teachers themselves, rather than to the system in which they practise”.
As Mockler says: “It has been used to justify tighter controls on who enters teaching, denigrate teachers and evade difficult questions of equity and funding.”
For a moment, at the height of lockdown, I thought that changed. The work of teachers was valued, particularly by parents trying to teach their children at home. Suddenly everyone understood how hard it was to teach just one or two children. Imagine 30 in a classroom at once.
But that momentary shift in attitude appears to have disappeared and there has been a return to denigrating the profession, those who enter teaching, and those who teach teachers. This has an influence on recruitment and an impact on young people’s choices. Why would you join a profession that is so lacking in value and respect.
We also need to do a much better job looking after and retaining the teachers we have. Almost two-thirds (59%) of teachers surveyed from New South Wales, the Northern Territory and South Australia indicated that they either intended to leave the profession before they retire, or were unsure if they would stay until retirement. If we think the problem is bad now, imagine what it will be like if those teachers do leave.
Public education must be made more attractive to our graduates but also to the teachers who are already in our public schools. It is difficult to maintain a steady flow into the public school system for the reasons I’ve outlined above – but even teachers early in their careers are deterred by the lack of security and flexibility. The incentives to work in regional, rural or remote areas are not enough to attract and keep teachers. Many of our graduates want to make a difference but they also need to be able to look after themselves and their families. Without any prospect of a permanent position, other systems and occupations become too attractive, especially when they offer higher starting and award rates, and more opportunities for earlier progression to higher rates of pay. This is especially so in the current tight labour market.
This is what poor workforce planning looks like.
It is not the time to shake up initial teacher education because it is not the problem causing a shortage in teachers, and we must not risk undermining the quality of these programs or of the graduates they produce.
We can have confidence in initial teacher education in this country. It is in very good shape. There is too much focus on the intake into teacher education. The fact is that, in NSW for example, school leavers wanting to enter an education degree must have three band fives in their HSC (including English) or equivalent – and those who don’t must do well in the first year of university studies before they are admitted.
We can also have confidence in the quality of our graduates because of the standards they have to meet to become accredited. But what we must do is mentor our new graduates. Give them additional time for preparation, to continue to learn the craft of teaching. Don’t just throw them into the deep end and expect them to swim, because the job of teaching is complex and difficult and without proper support they are likely to not thrive, and may not survive.
It is great that new federal education minister, Jason Clare, has called a meeting of his state counterparts and other key stakeholders because to solve the teacher shortage, we must all work together and be solution-focussed. The Labor Party has committed to new ‘universities accord’. What better challenge to meet first through this collaborative approach than bringing all stakeholders together to fix the teaching workforce crisis?
This can’t just be another opportunity to continue unhelpful criticism of teachers or of young people who choose to be teachers or of initial teacher education. We must stop criticising people who are committed to teaching.
But there is something which can be done immediately in schools to help address the crisis. We can employ many more paraprofessionals, who can undertake the tasks that teachers currently do that don’t require a teaching qualification. Relieving teachers of these time-consuming administrative tasks is likely to assist in retaining our existing teachers.
There is also something that can be done in funding arrangements. State health systems receive large amounts of Commonwealth funding for teaching, training and research activities which occur in public hospital services. NSW alone gets $750m this year and the Commonwealth hands over $2billion nationally for it. This funding is provided to state health systems in recognition of the critical importance of education, training and research to the ongoing quality and sustainability of our health system nationally. This kind of funding is not available to school systems.
Pay our teachers better. Improve their conditions. Invest in training and research in our public, catholic and independent school systems to improve quality and a pipeline of skilled graduates to renew our ageing teaching workforce. Teachers are striking because their pay and conditions are not adequate for the work they do. Entice back the teachers who have left by easing the burden of accreditation. Drop so many of the barriers we have.
The deans of education across Australian universities are wanting to work in cooperation with systems and with ministers. We are keen to do our bit by continuing to produce high quality graduates who will help to fill the teaching shortage.
The views expressed here in this blog are those of the author alone and are not made on behalf of or are intended to represent the views of the University of Sydney.