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Seizing the opportunity to make lasting changes for the teacher workforce

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:

Making teaching a highly regarded and sought-after career can attract more able people into the profession. Studies have shown that raising the status of the profession can be driven by effective policies, including providing possibilities for specialisation and higher salaries at more experienced levels, ensuring initial and continuing professional development, promoting professionalism and efficacy, recognising teacher excellence, and providing pathways for career progression.

Providing alternative pathways: Alternative pathways into teaching broaden the diversity of entry points into the profession. To attract these people into the profession we could consider:

  • Employment-based pathways: These alternative pathways allow individuals to work while they complete their teaching qualification. The aim of programs such as Teach For Australia, Nexus, Victoria’s Innovative Initial Teacher Education program, and the Commonwealth Government funded High Achieving Teachers Program is to recruit high performing individuals and place them in the schools experiencing workforce shortages. Critically, these pathways need to be of high quality to ensure that teachers are resilient and adequately supported in the workforce. 
  • Grow your own (GYO): GYOs are pathways into the teaching profession for candidates who aspire to teach in their local communities. The Growing Our Own program in the Northern Territory places Indigenous student teachers in their local communities – supporting two-way learning and benefits to the community. 

Additional pathways for teachers to become specialised in subject areas, beyond initial teacher education (ITE), will help to ensure teachers are equipped to work in areas where need is greatest. Pathways and accreditations will also provide learning opportunities for teachers to acquire the required content knowledge and pedagogical skills. These pathways should not be limited to classroom teachers – opportunities for specialisation and career progression will be critical to improving the quality and impact of our growing workforce of educational support staff.  

 At the heart of recent reforms is the need to create a pathway for teachers to remain in the classroom, recognise and reward expertise (including through more meaningful remuneration progression), and ensure that our best teachers are better utilised. Furthermore, opportunities for career progression can attract more young people to the teaching profession by offering rewarding careers and higher pay.

  • One such expert teacher career pathway is the Master Teacher position. Master Teachers have no formal classroom role, but act as pedagogical leaders in their subject areas – their remit includes working across networks of schools and guiding other teachers in their practice. While the position is relatively new in Australian jurisdictions (Victoria appointed its inaugural Master Teachers in late 2021 as part of the new cross-sectoral Teaching Excellence Program), these teaching career tracks have long existed in high-performing schooling systems such as Singapore and Shanghai.
  • Gaining Highly Accomplished and Lead Teacher (HALT) certification is a way for teachers to be recognised for their expertise in classroom teaching and effectiveness in improving student outcomes. Unlike the Master Teacher role, HALT certification does not prescribe a role description – this is left to the school to determine. As certification is not yet available in every jurisdiction in Australia, and with just over 1000 teachers becoming certified since 2012, HALT certification has not yet been fully realised at scale. 

 It is important to not look at the teacher workforce in isolation, but also the workforce that supports them, such as allied health and education support staff. A recent Australian Teacher Workforce Data (ATWD) report found that two of the most common reasons why teachers are considering leaving the profession include overwhelming workloads and insufficient pay. Reducing administrative tasks and helping to streamline the process of developing high-quality curriculum content has the potential to improve sustainable workloads, but these are not the only solutions. A recent study by our colleague Dr Virginia Lovison from Harvard University found that teachers value access to key student-wellbeing focused support roles (such as school nurses and psychologists) more than a 10% salary increase or 3-student reduction in class size. This underscores the importance of making appropriate investments in the broader health and wellbeing workforce that supports our schools to ensure that teachers have access to supports they need and value. 

Where to from here?

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.