Classroom ready? Not yet


Public schools are starting to burst at the seams and governments are under pressure to provide enough teachers and classrooms for the tens of thousands of extra students each year.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data shows school enrolments increased by about 200,000 in the five years to 2018. Public schools accounted for 76 per cent of the growth. A total of 3.9 million students were enrolled in 9477 schools – two-thirds in public schools.

And there is no sign of enrolment growth easing. A 2016 Grattan Institute report estimated an extra 650,000 students by 2026, which means that a significant increase in the teacher workforce is needed.

Teacher shortages in some specialist subjects such as maths, science, technology and the arts are being felt in some states, while the ongoing issue of attracting teachers to rural and remote schools is likely to become even tougher if there is a shortfall of teachers across the board.

The number of entrants to teaching degrees fell by 4000 between 2014 and 2017, says the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). The number of accredited programs is also falling.

The critical question is about reliable workforce data and planning to accommodate the boom in student population but any work on the problem has been primarily left to the states and territories. National workforce data is patchy and difficult to obtain.

Better data collection could provide a more cohesive national approach and provide reliable supply and demand information to universities and governments, says AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe. “Some countries – such as Finland – know how many teachers they need and link that directly with course intake.”

Data difficulties

Data is the fuel that drives effective workforce planning but there is a disconnect between the state and territory education systems that hold their own figures and the movement across state borders of teacher education students, school students and qualified teachers.

A national picture would help but corralling the competing interests can be difficult, says researcher Dr Paul Weldon.

“It needs a champion in Canberra to keep it going,” he says. Making the data collection a legislative requirement would also do the trick and should ensure funding.

“If, for example, registration bodies were required to collect some of this data every time a teacher re-registered, somebody would have to provide funding for that,” says Weldon whose 2015 Australian Council for Educational Research report on the teacher workforce first warned of the mismatch between enrolments and teachers in the coming decade.

School enrolment data should also be more readily available, he says. While the ABS holds national school enrolment data, it is more difficult for individual schools to obtain their local numbers.

Understanding the nuances of problem areas can help find solutions. A NSW Auditor-General report into the state education department strategy to increase numbers of teachers in STEM disciplines complained that incomplete data was “fundamentally limiting the effectiveness” of the strategy.

“The department does not collect sufficient information to monitor what disciplines teachers actually teach nor does it predict supply and demand for teachers by discipline and location. This restricts the department’s ability to track and forecast the supply and demand for secondary teachers in STEM-related disciplines,” the report said.

The campaign for more

Attracting and retaining teachers has never been more important to help keep the numbers up. In some states, major programs are already underway to convince school leavers and mature age candidates that teaching is a viable career path.

Teaching Queensland’s Future is a five-year strategy to improve the supply of teachers. It includes ambassadors travelling the state to promote teaching as a career and activities in schools with senior students and scholarships.

Queensland Teachers Union president Kevin Bates is pleased the strategy is in place but is not convinced it can deliver the teachers needed.

Bates expects to start seeing the effects of the teacher shortage in Queensland schools within the

next 12 months.

In Tasmania, the Education Workforce Roundtable – which includes the AEU, the education department and the University of Tasmania – has the job of attracting quality teachers to Tasmania following a pre-election promise for an extra 250 permanent positions in regional and isolated areas.

A Teach in Tasmania video, spruiking the charms of the Apple Isle, has already been a hit, says AEU Tasmania branch president Helen Richardson.

“It’s an exciting initiative that’s working towards solving the problem of attracting enough teachers in regional and remote schools where it’s been difficult to attract and retain teachers,” she says.

A $244.6 million program in Victoria includes cash incentives to attract teachers into hard-to-staff roles, says AEU Victoria branch president Meredith Peace.

“We know some schools have difficulties in attracting staff to fill vacancies, and with a rapidly increasing student population, this is likely to get worse. Investing in the workforce is a positive first step in finding solutions to this problem,” she says.

But she points out that excessive workloads also play a big part in staffing shortages and the difficulty in filling leadership roles.

The Victorian government is also working on ways to attract more teachers to rural and remote schools.

State education minister James Merlino says incentives of up to $50,000 are available for teachers willing to relocate to rural and regional schools. They will also receive non-financial support to help with the move such as help to find housing.

Improving wages and conditions is an important part of any strategy to increase the teaching workforce.

Research shows that better pay and status helps in attraction and retention. The problem is teachers’ salaries compare poorly to other professionals over the long-term.

Grattan Institute researchers Jonathan Nolan and Julie Sonnemann found that the starting full-time salary for a classroom teacher in most Australian states – between $65,000 and $70,000 – is similar to other professionals. But a classroom teacher’s pay stops rising after about nine years, while the incomes of their university-educated peers in other professions continue to rise for the next two decades.

“Other countries reward teacher expertise with higher pay relative to other professionals. So, while Australia’s pay for young secondary teachers is in the top half of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, Australia’s pay for older secondary teachers is in the bottom half,” Nolan and Sonnemann found.

Lifting the entry level

Haythorpe says fulfilling the workforce needs of the future cannot be achieved by lowering entry standards to the profession.

Low entry scores for teaching degrees is already a major concern, she says. Some universities are “conning the system” with low ATARs for teaching courses.

A confidential report leaked to the ABC found that some prospective teaching students offered places in teaching degrees had an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) that was “often as low as zero to 19”.

“It's a significant problem. Some universities are taking in students that have not been academically successful at school. This sets these students up for failure, they often exhibit higher dropout rates

from the ITE course and have to study remedial programs rather than developing their pedagogical understanding.

“The courses are essentially a cash cow because the universities get more funding as they increase the number of undergraduates,” she says.

Practice and more practice

The AEU believes teachers should complete a five-year course – a degree plus a Master of Education – supported with a strong practice component.

New educators say that a good experience during a practicum and comprehensive induction programs make all the difference.

Chelle Heath at Grahamstown Primary School in NSW completed four-week practicums in the second and third years of her degrees and a 10-week internship in the fourth year, but would have liked even more.

She’s now been in the classroom for five years but says she remembers those first days on the job with a shudder.

“I don’t feel that I was prepared enough, and I didn’t have a proper understanding of the education system. It was really difficult,” says Heath.

Heath says she also could have used more support with behaviour management techniques.

Hope Atkins, at Condell Park High School in NSW, says practicums and later casual teaching helped her find the best ways to approach behaviour management.

“In one of the schools I worked at, I didn’t go a day without a deputy popping into my room saying ‘Hey, are these kids alright, are you OK?’. So, having that for my first couple of weeks made me feel more confident in my behaviour management once I got into my own classroom,” says Atkins who has now been teaching for five years.

Nonetheless, her first year in the classroom was challenging. Posted to a permanent role in English and drama at Griffith, a regional city west of Sydney, Atkins was the only staff member with drama training.

“That was ‘interesting’, having my first three HSC classes and being the only drama teacher at my school,” she says.

South Australian teacher Kirsten Ifould was “absolutely terrified” on her first day in her own class, she says the time she spent as a relieving teacher helped to build her confidence. “Luckily, the school I was at that day, Seaford (in South Australia), had a really good package for relievers that you picked up from the office at the start of the day. It had all the information you could need and included quite detailed information about behaviour and medical issues. I‘ve since looked at that as best practice.”

Three years later and with a position at Aldinga Beach B-7 School, Ifould says teacher training should include more about helping students with trauma-related issues.

She says that children suffering the effects of family violence and substance abuse have special needs but there is little funding or support “so you’re dealing with it pretty much by yourself”.

As a mature-age student, Ifould, 46, says she felt lucky that she had some life experience behind her to help. “I feel for a 22-year old. It must be devastating for some of them to find out what really goes on in the world. It’s not what you’d expect.”

An AITSL survey found that induction programs were offered to just 59 per cent of new educators on permanent contracts and 17 per cent of early career casual relief teachers.

Sixty-five per cent of early career teachers who received a formal induction program strongly agreed that it improved their knowledge and teaching practice and 72 per cent said their experience made them feel a part of the profession.