Urgent action needed on workforce shortages


21 April 2022

The Morrison government’s education agenda is putting teaching and learning at risk.

Most states and territories are suffering chronic teacher shortages but there is no national plan to deal with the problem and there are fears there will not be enough new teachers to replace those who retire or leave the profession early.

A New South Wales Teachers Federation study has found that more than 18,000 extra full-time equivalent teachers will be needed in NSW alone by 2036 because of rising student numbers.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows enrolments in public schools increased by 5.9 per cent to more than 2.6 million in the five years to 2020. But enrolments in teaching degrees in the five years to 2019 dropped by 7000 or 8.7 per cent.

With rising enrolments and a shrinking workforce, federal government leadership is vital to attract and retain teachers. We need better pay and career prospects; improved induction and mentoring; ongoing professional support and protection from time-consuming administrative demands.

Fair and proper funding would underpin these strategies, ensuring the recruitment and retention of the teachers, specialists and support staff that schools need, and to provide buildings and resources that make quality teaching and learning possible.

Respect, reward and rigour

AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe says a national plan must provide fair measures of respect and reward for teachers’ unfailing professionalism and rigour in qualifications and registration processes.

Respecting teachers’ knowledge and skills, trusting their judgment and enabling their professional autonomy are essential elements, says Haythorpe. But the Coalition’s nine years in office have seen increasing political intervention in the classroom with continued attacks on the curriculum and pedagogy.

“That shows a lack of respect for what we do. Teachers are best placed to understand their students’ needs.”

Improved pay and conditions would help attract new entrants to the profession and reward teachers for the increasing complexity and demands of their work, she says.

Teachers’ pay, relative to other professions, has been falling for decades.

“Strong nationally competitive salary structures that appropriately reward teachers’ work would provide the recognition to attract new teachers into the profession,” she says.

Significant workloads

Better pay is just one part of the equation. Equally important is addressing the punishing workloads and stress that cause one in four teachers to leave the profession early.

Seventy per cent of teachers reported an increase in working hours in 2021 compared with 60 per cent in 2020, according to the AEU’s State of our Schools survey of almost 4000 teachers, principals and school support staff in December 2021.

Full-time teachers work 48.4 hours per week on average, the survey found, while early-career teachers and teachers in remote and under-resourced schools exceed this average.

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership’s (AITSL) analysis of teacher workforce data shows nine in 10 (87 per cent) of those intending to leave before retirement blame workload and stress for their early departure.
One-third said they were leaving because of low pay rates, while about one-quarter cited the challenges of managing student behaviour.

The survey predates the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has added an extra layer of workload and stress.

The 2021 report of the NSW Gallop Inquiry into the work of teachers and principals noted the “overwhelming changes” in teacher workloads.

“We have seen significant (and still ongoing) increases in the volume and complexity of work generated by government decisions and heavily influenced by the social, economic and technological environment,” the report says.

Administration, data collection and reporting are among the leading contributors to the burgeoning teacher workload. Others include constant policy changes, significant increases in student need, rapid changes in technology, the expansion and reform of the curriculum, new compliance, and higher community expectations of what schools and teachers can do, the report says.

Subject to change

The rise in out-of-field teaching – brought about by the teacher shortages – is also adding to teacher workloads and stress.

Senior lecturer in education at Griffith University Dr Anna Elizabeth Du Plessis told Australian Educator about the far-reaching implications of out-of-field teaching including the effects on school stability, quality teaching, and teacher and student wellbeing.

Du Plessis says she has observed many teachers in out-of-field positions dealing with significant classroom challenges and stress because of the “emotional rollercoaster” of teaching content or age levels outside of their training and expertise, and managing student behaviour with an unfamiliar group of students.

Out-of-field teaching occurs in high rates across all subjects, the AITSL report says: “There is no subject with low rates of out-of-field teaching, which suggests that there are supply challenges across all subjects.”

Lowest rates for out-of-field teaching are in English (28 per cent), science (29 per cent) and creative arts (31 per cent). Teachers of subjects in the humanities, languages other than English, mathematics, special education and personal development, health and physical education were out-of-field between 36 per cent and 46 per cent of the time.

Attracting new recruits

While the teaching workforce must grow quickly, fast-tracking teacher training is not the answer, says Haythorpe.

The federal government has spent $80 million dollars since 2009 supporting the controversial Teach For Australia (TFA) program, which provides 13 weeks of intensive training to graduates from non-teaching backgrounds.

The program has been criticised for its high cost and low results. A review found that more than one-third of TFA hires had left the classroom within a year of completing their placement. After three years, less than half of all participants were still employed.

Haythorpe says government policies should ensure high-quality qualifications, including a two-year postgraduate masters degree, and new students should meet ATAR-equivalent minimum entry requirements. After graduating, beginning teachers must receive ongoing mentoring and professional development, she says.

One-third of new teachers in the State of our Schools survey said their training did not prepare them well for the classroom, particularly in teaching students whose first language is not English; dealing with difficult behaviour and teaching students with disability.

Just under half did not receive an induction program designed for new teachers or have a reduced workload to help them settle into their new positions. Only five per cent of new teachers received any follow up from their university.

“We want a properly qualified, well-supported profession and that starts with initial teacher education,” Haythorpe says.

“You don’t fill workforce shortages by lowering the qualifications. You fill them by proper planning to address supply and demand issues and by governments committing to strong attraction and retention provisions for the workforce.”

The workers and policy makers divide

It’s time to listen to teachers, write Meghan Stacey, lecturer in education at University of NSW and Mihajla Gavin, a lecturer in the business school at the University of Technology, Sydney, in the EduResearch matters blog.

There’s a disconnect between teacher workforces across Australia and the policy makers with power over their conditions, Stacey and Gavin write.

This workload and intensification of work has occurred at a time when governments are promoting devolutionary, market-inspired policy, they say. “Policies that devolve increased decision-making power to schools have contributed to the intensification of teachers’ work, resembling a ‘tsunami’ of paperwork.

“As we look upon the dawn of another new, uncertain, and likely difficult year in schools, it is high time that we listen to and support our teachers – or soon there may no longer be any qualified professionals left in our schools to listen to,” write Stacey and Gavin.

The incoming federal government must make it a priority to address these issues, says Haythorpe. “Teachers need to be at the heart of education and school policy.”

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Autumn 2022