Teacher shortages are not a new thing. It is difficult to envisage a time when every school in the country had just the right number of teachers and with the right subject skills. The labour markets for other occupations are similarly in a constant state of flux.
At the beginning of each school year there is heightened anxiety about teacher shortages, some of which resolve over time one way or another, but could include less than optimal outcomes for some schools with assignment of some teachers to classes for which they are not qualified, larger classes or a truncated curriculum.
As we come out of the pandemic, this year seems a bit unusual however. Unfilled teacher vacancies are much higher, and there are reports of private schools ‘poaching’ teachers from public schools with offers of higher salaries and better working conditions. Has there been a higher than usual attrition of experienced teachers? With the very low overall unemployment rate and shortages in many other sectors of the economy, it is quite conceivable that some teachers may have taken the opportunity in these economic circumstances to change careers and try out something different, especially given that teacher salaries compared to those in other occupations with similar qualification requirements are, on average, lower.
What could schools and school systems do in the short-term? They could provide incentives for recently-retired and on-leave teachers to return to the classroom. Incentives have to include flexible work conditions such as part-time work, and perhaps only classroom duties and no other pastoral or administrative duties. Teachers on parenting or maternity leave could be offered free quality childcare for their children near or at the school.
In remote and regional areas, are there teachers among ‘grey nomads’ who could fill some short-term vacancies in schools? Given the right incentives, grey nomad teachers who would have a wealth of experience under their belts, could be another source of supply.
In the long-term, better planning is required. There has to be a concerted effort to raise the status of teachers and teaching in society which includes paying teachers better salaries to reflect their qualifications and the high workload. A serious effort is required to map credible career paths for teachers, one that does not plateau five to ten years after their first job. An old idea which could be revived is to provide access to subsidised housing loans for teachers, possibly with superannuation funds acting as banks. This is important as growth in teacher salaries substantially lags growth in housing costs.
To encourage new teacher graduates into hard-to-staff schools, they should be provided either free or heavily-subsidised housing near the school. This incentive could be offered to each teacher for up to five years.
Quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) is critically important for the cognitive and social development of all children. But it is also important for improving national productivity and labour force participation, especially among women. Using many existing school sites to co-locate ECEC centres could quickly boost supply at convenient locations. Teachers working at these schools could be offered priority and subsidised access to these services for their young children. Such arrangements could provide an added incentive to attract people into teaching. Nurses in public hospitals, who are also in short supply, could be included in these arrangements. The funding of such a scheme would necessarily require a commonwealth-state partnership.
Public schools’ budgets are mainly determined on the basis of student to teacher ratios with adjustments for special needs, based on factors such as the socio-economic profile of the student cohort and school location. However, the budget allocation does not fully consider the curriculum range that the schools are expected to provide.
As a result, there will be circumstances in many schools when teachers will be in surplus in some subject areas and short in others. Consequently, some teachers may be assigned to teach in an area in which they are not qualified. Such out-of-field teaching has been shown to result in poorer student achievement outcomes. Evidence shows such out-of-field teaching assignments are more prevalent in public schools than private schools. This is partly because public schools’ budgets are generally tighter, thus restricting the number of teachers for a given number of students that can be employed at any time. Tighter budgets also mean these schools are at a disadvantage in a tight labour market for teachers as they are unable to compete on salaries that they can offer.
The current distribution of public funding for schools has to take account of the total needs and incomes of schools to make it more equitable to address some of these problems. Both short and long-term solutions require additional public investment in education, the benefits of which will be far-reaching and go beyond just education.
Chandravadan Shah is an affiliated researcher at Monash University. For 21 years, Chandra was Associate Professor (Research) in the Centre for the Economics of Education and Training (CEET) at Monash University. He is also Adjunct Associate Professor at CIRES, Victoria University and Fellow of the Global Labor Organisation.
Paul W. Richardson is Professor of Education at Monash University. He is engaged in a longitudinal study of the career choice motivations of teachers, teacher self-efficacy, the career trajectories of different types of beginning and mid-career teachers (www.fitchoice.org), and teacher health and wellbeing across the career lifespan.
Helen M. G. Watt is Professor of Educational Psychology and Director of Research Development (Social Sciences) at The University of Sydney, Australia. Her longitudinal research is on gendered educational and occupational pathways in STEM fields (www.stepsstudy.org), and the evolution of motivations, professional engagement and wellbeing through teachers’ careers (www.fitchoice.org).