A national crisis of numbers


21 November 2021

A leaked New South Wales government document expects the state may “run out of teachers in the next five years”.

The dire prediction is based on an existing teacher shortage, rising enrolments and an ageing workforce – and there is no relief in sight from a supply of new graduates. Enrolments in initial teacher education degrees have dropped by 30 per cent.

A NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF) study has also found that up to 18,600 extra full-time equivalent teachers will be needed in NSW schools by 2036.

NSWTF president Angelo Gavrielatos says shortages are already evident. More than 1,000 permanent positions are vacant across the state and 15 per cent of teachers are teaching outside their areas of expertise.

“We have been waiting 10 years for a comprehensive workforce plan that shows how the shortages will be fixed, how many teachers we need and how the government will end the unacceptable situation,” he says

The state’s 2.5 per cent cap on public sector salaries over the last decade has resulted in uncompetitive salaries compared to other professions and that is contributing to the decline in the attractiveness of the profession, says Gavrielatos.

Departmental reports acknowledge widespread concerns about salaries, noting that teacher pay has been falling relative to other professions since the late 1980s “and this makes it a less attractive profession for high-achieving students”, according to one leaked document.

“The demands and expectations on teachers are increasing, while the current rewards, pathways, and learning opportunities are not providing enough incentive,” says another.

ACT works on solutions

Teacher shortages are biting in every state and territory in different ways, but the underlying difficulty of attracting new people to the profession and retaining existing valued teachers is consistent.

In the ACT, an AEU survey of more than 1800 members this year delivered such alarming results that the government immediately established a joint taskforce to develop a plan to deal with the shortages.

The AEU is demanding tangible results from the taskforce, which meets fortnightly, includes the AEU and is chaired by the Education Directorate’s director-general. All of these factors signal that the issue is being taken “very seriously”, says AEU ACT branch president Angela Burroughs.

“This is a genuine attempt to improve the conditions of our members by working in partnership with the Education Directorate.”

The survey revealed ever-increasing demands on school staff, a lack of relief teachers and concerns about workplace safety.

Ninety-one per cent of respondents said their school was negatively affected by staff shortages.

More than 80 per cent said the practice of splitting classes – distributing students to other classrooms – to deal with staff shortages was increasing. The survey found that split classes compromised learning outcomes, and student behaviour was affected. Almost one in five respondents had experienced violence in the classroom as a direct consequence of split or cancelled classes.

“Members are telling us that splitting or cancelling classes is happening on a scale they’ve never seen before,” says Burroughs.

This means that class sizes are increasing and some members have reported classes of up to 50 students. Eighty-five per cent of respondents said the staffing pressures, workloads and unpaid overtime had taken a toll on their mental health.

With one in three teachers in their first three years of teaching considering leaving the profession, Burroughs says solving the staffing shortage is as much about retaining existing teachers.

“This requires adequate support, remuneration and far greater community-wide recognition of the challenges our educators face and the value of the work they do.” The shortages also affect students. Almost all school leaders (98 per cent) said understaffing was undermining teachers’ capacity to consistently deliver high-quality education.

No relief in Tas

The concerns in the ACT are mirrored in Tasmania, where AEU branch president David Genford says a chronic teacher shortage and excessive workloads are affecting teachers and students.

“Our working conditions are the learning conditions of our students,” he says.

A survey of Tasmanian teachers also found ever-increasing workplace stress, burnout and mental strain linked to the job.

“Teaching is an incredibly rewarding job – but jobs shouldn’t hurt,” says Genford. “We need to look after the people we have.”

Genford says low pay and stressful working conditions are inhibiting the attraction of experienced teachers and new graduates to the state. University of Tasmania teaching degree completion rates have fallen to around 33 per cent, down from 55 per cent 15 years ago.

A minimum of 168 new full-time teachers will be needed in the state by 2026 to cover expected enrolment growth and high retirement rates.

Genford says if every Tasmanian public school was funded to the minimum Schooling Resource Standard written into federal legislation, an additional 1409 teachers could be employed – an average of 7.5 teachers for every school.

The teacher survey found that one in five schools had unfilled vacancies, and 80 per cent of schools reported being unable to fill relief teacher vacancies this year.

WA wage cap frustration

A shortage of relief teachers across the country is worsening the difficulties caused by teacher shortages. While schools in regional areas have always struggled to find relief teachers, schools in metropolitan areas are increasingly struggling too.

State School Teachers Union of WA president Pat Byrne says it’s a big problem in Western Australia.

“When schools in leafy green metro areas can’t get relief teachers, we know we’re in dire straits,” says Byrne.

She blames the lack of available relief teachers partly on schools offering them longer-term contracts due to not being able to fill ongoing positions.

“It’s just creating another problem elsewhere. Principals are having to step in and teach, and some primary schools are sending groups of children to a number of other classrooms, which is a significant disruption to the students and the teachers.”

Enrolments are also rising in WA, where an estimated 4500 extra teachers will be needed over the next five years, but fewer graduates are expected in that time. The number of students completing a secondary school teaching qualification fell by 60 per cent last year.

Byrne says WA’s cap on public sector wages is making teaching jobs less attractive. Four years ago, the WA government mandated a $1000 per annum cap on all public sector pay increases and, prior to this year’s state election, pledged to continue it for another two years. Now, with a $5.6 billion budget surplus, the policy is being reviewed.

“The research is pretty clear that when teachers are well paid, you attract high-achieving students, but the opposite is true when wages are low,” says Byrne.

The $1000 cap also creates an issue at school leadership level and many schools struggle to find experienced principals.

“It erodes relativity between, say, beginning teachers and principals. The salary cap and the enormous workload take away the incentive to apply for a principal position,” says Byrne.

“There are people with minimal leadership experience applying for roles in some of our biggest schools, rather than experienced principals looking for a change. In inner-city primary schools, for example, you might get just four or five applicants, some of them classroom teachers. These are schools that in the past would have had dozens of applicants.”

QLD growth pressures

Across Queensland, school leaders report difficulties attracting and retaining teachers, and enrolments are expected to grow quickly, which puts further pressure on schools.

Queensland Teachers’ Union president Cresta Richardson says the state’s population is forecast to increase by about 60,000 in the next few years.

Queensland is accustomed to some staffing shortfalls in remote and regional centres, and teacher shortages are now being felt in metropolitan areas.

Richardson says school leaders and specialist teachers are often forced to take on additional duties – particularly in remote and regional areas, where relief teachers are scarce.

Improving teachers’ salaries and working conditions are important steps towards increasing the numbers of people entering the profession and ensuring that those teaching want to stay, she says.

The QTU has also called for better access to mentoring programs for beginning teachers.

SA country incentives needed

In South Australia, teachers’ professional development is another casualty of the lack of relief teachers, particularly in remote and regional areas.

AEU SA branch president Lara Golding says that, for some, it might be a day’s drive to Adelaide to attend a course, and that means three days off work.

“But if no relief teachers are available, the school won’t allow the time off. That exacerbates isolation and prevents access to high-quality professional development.”

As in other states, teacher shortages in SA are worse in rural and remote areas.

“We have positions that have gone unfilled for a number of years, particularly in specialist subjects such as maths, science, technology and tech studies,” says Golding.

Principal positions are also tough to fill outside of Adelaide. Golding says a bigger effort is needed to lure teachers and principals to country areas.

“More teachers might be willing to move to the country if the incentives are adequate and ongoing.”

Vic offers cash lures

Victoria is putting money on the table to encourage teachers to country and hard-to-staff areas. It offered 50 incentive packages of up to $50,000 in 2019-2020 to teachers prepared to relocate to the country (and to some difficult-to-staff metropolitan schools). The amount offered in each case varies according to the school, and the money will be paid over several years. A further 150 and 250 positions were offered in the second and third years.

Teachers can use these incentive packages to cover relocation, housing and cost-of-living expenses.

AEU Victoria branch president Meredith Peace says the idea is to get teachers to those schools and also to stay for a longer term.

“It's too early to say whether it will work, but we took the view that it was worth a try given the difficulties schools were facing.”

Teacher shortages in Victoria are mostly felt in specialist subjects – maths and technology – in secondary schools, and particularly in country areas.

Relief teachers are also in short supply in Victoria. Last year, many relief teachers signed up to the tutor learning initiative the state government introduced to support students having difficulties with remote learning.

But Peace says some relief teachers reported being treated poorly by schools and others weren’t keen to work onsite during the lockdowns. As a result, a number decided to leave teaching for other jobs. “We had an arrangement with the department during the first lockdown last year for a payment system for relief teachers. If they were working regularly in a school, which people often do, they got a payment equivalent to what they would have earned based on the previous 12 months. It was a bit like JobKeeper and designed to keep these valuable people around for when schools reopened.

“But some schools refused to pay, even though the teachers were entitled to the payment. This was extremely disappointing as it left them without any source of income.”

Since then, the Department of Education and Training has regularly reminded and encouraged schools to maintain connections with their relief teachers by using them in onsite programs and remote teaching where possible.

Improving support for beginning teachers is also widely seen as a retention strategy.

Peace says a type of internship program or extended practicum is being trialled in Victorian secondary schools to get teaching students into classrooms, under supervision, and being paid.

“They still have to get their qualification, and they continue to study and get qualified. But it means they can get them into schools a little earlier than normal.

“It’s a positive way to help retain people in the profession, because they have a much clearer understanding of what work in a school is going to be like.”

A similar program rolling out in early childhood has created some concerns about the extra workload for qualified teachers.

Insecure work is also a problem, says Peace. Most new teachers in Victoria are employed on contracts, “which is not a great way to attract people or retain them in the profession”.

NT reconsiders contracts

About 40 per cent of teachers in the Northern Territory are hired on contracts, and the figure is higher in remote and hard-to-staff schools.

AEU NT branch president Jarvis Ryan says the Department of Education has finally recognised that action is needed.

“We need to hire teachers on a permanent basis, or we won’t be able to recruit,” he says. “It limits the pool of recruits to say to someone on the other side of the country, ‘Pack up your life, come and work in a very remote location, but we're only offering you a 12-month contract.’”

A stable and experienced workforce is one of the most important contributors to increasing student performance, says Ryan.

Relief teachers are in such short supply that they need never go a day without work in the Territory, he says. In some regional and remote areas there are no relief teachers at all, leaving the schools to make their own arrangements.

The AEU has told the department that a centralised approach is needed to ensure schools are adequately staffed.

“That requires a change in thinking, a change in culture to move away from the school autonomy model that’s been in vogue for many years, towards a model that ensures the department’s resources are mobilised to ensure staffing across all schools,” says Ryan.

This article was originally published in The Australian Educator, Summer 2021