On August 12, Education Ministers from across Australia will meet for the first time since the federal election. In light of the impacts of COVID-19, which have exacerbated issues associated with the teacher workforce, the summit is rightly focusing on issues of teacher supply and demand.
There are clearly immediate issues of staffing and workload that require attention to alleviate the acute pressures our teachers and schools are facing. A similar story is currently being observed in the early childhood sector, with the challenge of staffing shortages set to become more critical as the recently announced free pre-kindergarten reforms are implemented in Victoria and New South Wales.
It’s well established that school closures or pivots to remote teaching arising from acute teacher shortages should be prevented wherever possible, given what we know about the effects on student learning and wellbeing. This means we need creative solutions to meet immediate workforce needs, including drawing more on student teachers as para-professionals, as well as retired teachers, and registered teachers working outside of school settings (in the education industry, as well as government departments, dioceses, etc.)
However, implementing these short-term solutions won’t solve the underlying workforce issues facing the sector. And we can’t allow a focus on these short-term solutions to prevent us from making progress on addressing the long-term challenges in the system. We can and should advance both simultaneously.
Even in areas where we have made progress in recent decades, the progress observed has not been sufficient to resolve the underlying workforce issues, as demands have grown with increased investments and expectations of the teaching profession. Indeed, we have seen reviews pointing to issues of attraction, placement and retention for decades, with limited change over time. A series of Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) reports from 2001-2005 delved into issues of teacher supply and demand at the time, raising many of the same challenges that we continue to experience today.
“It may well be that the issues to be addressed in the future are not so much about the number of teachers available, but more about finding and/or training suitable teachers for areas where there are particular skill requirements or recruitment difficulties – such as certain secondary teaching specialisations, remote and rural vacancies and difficult-to-staff metropolitan schools … increasingly, finding relief staff is exacerbating the difficulties.” MCEETYA, 2005
Worryingly, there are signs that these challenges will worsen over time, and stand to negatively impact on teacher quality and student learning outcomes if not addressed. It is evident that the time to seize the opportunity to make lasting changes on the teacher workforce is now. In doing so, we need to have eyes on the long game: a comprehensive, coordinated and long-term strategy, with varied approaches and initiatives to attract, place and retain teachers, is needed to address these inherently complex workforce challenges.
From Deloitte Access Economics’ experience and research over recent years, this strategy should include a range of initiatives, including:
There is no silver bullet solution to this problem.
If the issues affecting the teacher workforce are to be successfully addressed – and the teaching profession structured for success – a comprehensive, coordinated and long-term national strategy is essential. The strategy must encapsulate a range of initiatives and approaches, and should place an equal focus on attracting and retaining teachers.
The role of the Commonwealth will be to provide a coherent architecture within which jurisdictions can implement policy settings and innovate to see what works. There will then be a need to ensure data and lessons learned are shared in a rigorous and timely fashion.
The Commonwealth should also play a key role in building a national picture of supply and demand for teachers, linking data from ITE through early career teaching and later career teaching. This stands to offer significant benefits, including establishing an evidence base on the outcomes of ITE and the effectiveness of policies in attracting and retaining teachers, and filling knowledge gaps on key issues such as the supply of specialist teachers (this is where an established Australian Teacher Workforce Data initiative provides opportunities for policymakers).
These reforms should be front of mind as we work towards the next round of federal funding negotiations, where significant opportunity lies.
While there is no doubt the conversations this week will be focused on the acute challenges facing our schools today, it is critical that the sector takes this opportunity to develop a long-term, multi-pronged strategy to solve Australia’s underlying teacher workforce issues, so that we aren’t again ruing stalled progress in another two decades’ time.