Opinion & Commentary

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New strategies needed to beat teacher shortage

Jennifer Buckingham | The Courier Mail | 19 October 2005

Australia has a serious shortage of suitably qualified maths and science teachers and a continuing problem with attracting good teachers to rural schools. When a problem is enduring and is not being improved by current approaches, new strategies are needed.

Numerous inquiries and reviews at the state and federal level have provided reason to believe that the requirement for full-time university pre-service education is a deterrent to potential teachers. This is particularly the case for high-calibre maths and science graduates, whose career opportunities are numerous and attractive, as well as professionals considering a career change. The sacrifice of a year's salary, with no guarantee of satisfactory employment, is often not an appealing option.

This need not be the case. Alternative forms of teacher education offer a way around this problem, without sacrificing (and indeed arguably increasing) the quality of teacher education.

School-based teacher education, which operates like a paid internship, offers the most promise. In the model proposed, secondary schools in need of a teacher could recruit directly from recent graduates or from the non-teaching labour force people of suitable qualifications, and allow them to undertake paid teaching duties while they gain their teaching qualification.

School-based teacher education has numerous advantages beyond the labour market imbalances it targets. It is highly efficient, offering schools the opportunity to recruit teachers with the expertise and other characteristics that meet the specific needs of their school. It trains only those teachers for whom positions are available. It effectively addresses widespread concerns that university teacher education courses do not provide trainees with sufficient classroom experience, and that graduates are ill-prepared for taking on full teaching duties.

Despite the clear need for new strategies to attract teachers, rather than making it easier for able people of good character to enter teaching, Australian authorities and educational institutions are gradually making it more difficult.

This paper does not argue that it is necessary to overhaul every teacher education program in the country. What is necessary is to offer alternatives that acknowledge the diverse characteristics and needs of potential teachers and allow them to enter the profession as readily as possible.

The most important influence on how much children learn is the quality of teaching they receive. Quality teaching, particularly in the key curriculum areas of maths and science, is determined largely by teachers' depth of knowledge of their subject and their ability to communicate. In 2003, the Ministerial Council of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs predicted potential shortages of 20,000 to 30,000 teachers by around 2012 under current demand and supply conditions.

However, the shortages are unlikely to be across-the-board, and will probably exacerbate existing imbalances in the teaching population. The council report found that a large proportion of new teaching graduates were qualified for primary teaching, while the greatest demand was for secondary teachers. The shortages are likely to be most pronounced in certain secondary teaching specialisations, as well as in rural and remote locations and some metropolitan areas. Recent trends in the number of teachers graduating in the specialisations most in demand are not encouraging.

The importance of high-quality teachers of maths, science and technology is self-evident and cannot be overstated. Yet there are insufficient numbers of teachers willing and able to teach these subjects, particularly at the senior school level, and their quality is highly variable.

A survey published by the Australian Council of Deans of Science this year found that large proportions of secondary schools across Australia were having difficulty recruiting suitably qualified teachers of science. Physics and chemistry teachers were in greatest demand. Forty-one per cent of schools reported difficulty recruiting physics teachers and 31 per cent reported difficulty recruiting chemistry teachers.

The survey also found a large discrepancy between the level of qualifications believed by heads of school science departments to be necessary to teach science, and the actual qualifications of science teachers. Almost all science heads said that at least a minor in the teaching subject was the minimum satisfactory qualification, yet 26 per cent of physics teachers and 13 per cent of chemistry teachers (including senior school teachers) had neither a major nor a minor in their subject. Sixteen per cent of junior secondary teachers had not studied a science subject past first year at university and 8 per cent had not studied science at university level at all.

Mathematics teachers are also in short supply.

In 2002, four out of eight states and territories had acute, widespread shortages of secondary maths teachers in government schools, while another two states had moderate shortages. In the non-government sector, 41 per cent of schools nationally reported either acute or moderate shortages.

Jennifer Buckingham is a research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and author of Schools in the Spotlight. This is an edited extract of a paper released today.