Are we really in a so-called teaching crisis?

No doubt you’ve heard stories by claiming we’ve got a massive shortage of teachers right across the country. The stories say that no-one respects them and they are all overworked and underpaid. Is it any wonder, you’re encouraged to ask, that teachers are reportedly leaving the profession in droves?  

Things have become so bad apparently that a crisis meeting of education ministers and advocates has gathered this week to start work on a new national plan.  

One suspects it would be more comforting if those involved weren’t the same groups and individuals whose fingerprints are all over the current plan that drove spending up — but outcomes down — in our education system for the past 15 years. 

But perhaps the bigger problem is that all of those claims are either overstated, or flat out wrong. And what’s worse, they risk obscuring the very real challenges facing the profession in coming years. 

First, there is no evidence that huge numbers of teachers are leaving the profession. In fact, ABS data shows around 4 to 5 per cent of teachers leave each year — around half the rate seen across the wider economy. This is about half the attrition rate of teachers in most developed countries. And it’s far less than some other professions; for example, a recent Australasian Legal Practice Management Survey found the attrition rate in law is above 20 per cent. 

Moreover, you actually need some turnover in every profession: you want poor performers, and those no longer passionate about the job, to leave. Not every graduate teacher will, or should, teach for their whole career. 

If teacher supply is an issue, the answer lies in raising entrants, not preventing exits. Yet policy settings have increasingly focussed on making it harder to become a teacher.  

Worse still, it’s not clear these policies have better prepared graduates to actually teach, as some at this week’s meeting acknowledged.  

Instead, we should be getting trainee teachers out of the university classroom and into schools. More time at the chalkface, not more time at the mercy of education academics, will improve both quantity and quality of new teachers. Initial Teacher Education leaves much room for improvement. 

Of course, that won’t address problems caused by economy-wide pressures: especially a tight labour market and supply issues from Covid isolations and illness. 

The spike in school vacancies in recent times — up 84 per cent since pre-Covid — is in line with wider economy surge of around 80 per cent.  

In the short term, these gaps could be filled by expanding skilled migration (especially in regional areas) and encouraging retired teachers to come back into the classroom. 

However, all employers will keep facing these challenges as long as unemployment is at 3.5 per cent; which the huge surge in inflation shows is well below the sustainable rate. 

Second, given the tight labour market and obvious cost of living issues from that inflation surge, it is hardly surprising that teachers’ salaries are under pressure. But again, there is no evidence that teachers are uniquely worse off than the rest of us or their global peers. 

Australian teachers are already among the highest paid in the world, and starting salaries now exceed virtually any other occupation.  

Teachers pay stalls out after several years but too many in the profession remain opposed to solutions that involve the measurement of, and financial recognition for, high performers.  

So while their advocates are welcome to bargain for higher salaries, education ministers should be adding some sense of proportion — not amplifying the feeling of crisis. 

And speaking of those advocates, they are pretty much the only ones putting forward the view that teachers are no longer respected. Society is no longer unquestioningly deferential to those in authority — for good reasons — but that is not the same as a specific disrespect for teachers.  

One area where concern is justified is teachers’ workload, but again the simplistic diagnosis misses the true issue: it’s not the number of hours teachers are working that’s the problem, but what they’re tasked with doing.  

Teachers’ time is increasingly dominated by administrative burdens and wasted lesson preparation time, not by excess teaching hours. 

Why are teachers constantly expected to reinvent the wheel? They should have access to high-quality, standardised, teaching materials based on the science of learning.  

Other professions have long ago figured out the time-saving benefits of such databases of resources, regularly updated and widely accessible thanks to technology. Instead of giving all teachers more time to create their own, leverage technology and let teachers spend more time actually teaching. 

Predictably, the sense of crisis is being magnified by calls to reduce class sizes, while the solutions currently being touted all involve decreasing hours and increasing salaries across-the-board.  

This is the same tired agenda that has been pursued across the sector for years. There is no reason to think this will deliver better student outcomes. On the contrary, as funding inputs have increased student results have actually become worse.  

A national teacher workforce summit is an important opportunity to reset this process and genuinely address short-term and long-term needs of the sector. The evidence base exists to cut through the incorrect claims.  

But will this new national plan be bold enough to reach for evidence-based solutions at the risk angering the vested interests to? History suggests not. 


Simon Cowan is Research Director, and Glenn Fahey is Program Director in Education at the Centre for Independent Studies.