Education unions say there are too many teachers leaving the profession, but the real problem is a deficit in teachers entering. The unions have waged an ongoing war over wages, culminating in repeated NSW strike action starting late last year.
The most recent strike late last month resulted in the closure of 450 public and independent schools and interruption to schooling of 700,000 students, despite the NSW government proposing a 3 per cent salary increase.
The union campaign says teachers are underpaid, overworked and undervalued, and that higher wages must be paid and more done to keep teachers from leaving the classroom. But in talking up the alleged risk of teacher attrition, unions talk down the actual state of the profession.
By international standards, Australian teachers are among the highest paid in the world, work similar hours to their peers elsewhere, and report generally high satisfaction. Nearly double the proportion of teachers in Australia say teaching is highly valued, compared to the OECD average.
It turns out that while it’s true that teachers responding to (potentially loaded) survey questions may report an intention to leave the profession, relatively few actually do.
Low attrition levels
About 4 per cent of teachers leave each year. That’s less than half the attrition rate of teachers in most OECD countries, and less than half the turnover of employees in the wider economy. Even among early-career teachers, considered most vulnerable to dropping out, only about 11 per cent leave within five years (even though it is incorrectly cited as being three to five times higher).
Not only is teacher attrition relatively low, it is also not worsening. On available data, the proportion of teachers leaving each year has remained more or less constant. In short, a supposed great resignation of teachers is a fizzer.
That is why solutions for plugging school vacancies and improving supply will not come from seeking to block exists, but from facilitating entry to teaching. To do that requires resurrecting the numbers in teacher training and assisting more career changers into the classroom.
Instead of barriers, policymakers must help more potential teachers to make it to the chalkface sooner. In recent years, fewer potential teachers have entered the pipeline through university education degrees.
This has largely been the result of higher education policy that is increasingly imposing barriers to entry. The cumulative effect of additional literacy and numeracy tests, accreditation arrangements, and compliance with regulatory settings add to the hurdles of becoming a teacher.
At the same time, the focus has been on being more selective about who enters teaching, rather than more inclusive. Even though available data show that Australia is already relatively selective, a public scare campaign about potentially low-calibre entrants has led to policy bias towards only the so-called “best and brightest”.
There aare too many roadblocks preventing new entrants to teaching, including inflexible pay, excess credentialling and unnecessary delays to satisfy bureaucratic regulations.
Pay rigidities mean career-changers must start teaching on entry-level salaries, with no capacity to recognise subject knowledge or experience. That deters potential entrants from exactly the fields of industry that would most benefit the teacher workforce.
Extended two-year postgraduate qualifications are generally required for those who want to enter teaching mid-career. Not only does this act as a significant disincentive, there’s also no evidence that more or longer degrees ultimately result in better teaching.
Instead of barriers, policymakers must help more potential teachers to make it to the chalkface sooner. The truth is that despite union doomsaying, the demand is there.
Teaching is an attractive profession that many want to enter. Analysis for the recent Quality Initial Teacher Education Review suggests that about four in 10 mid-career professionals would consider becoming a teacher, if there were fewer barriers to enter.
Resolving teacher supply challenges is an important task for education policymakers.
A recently announced parliamentary inquiry intends to build “a teaching workforce with the size, strength and skill to deliver the excellent education that we all want for our children”. That is a worthy goal, but solutions will not come from following the lead of education unions, whose business model is wedded to attrition prevention.
To improve the size, strength and skill of the teaching profession, we must be more open to increasing entry.
Glenn Fahey is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, and formerly held research and policy positions with the OECD.