Tania Aspland

It takes more than a great ATAR to make a great teacher

The question of how to encourage the best candidates to become teachers in Australia is complex and requires much more than just standalone measures like mandatory levels of ATARs for teacher education students.

Educators like me welcome debate on educational issues, including this particular conversation around ATARs. We are keen to hear a range of views. However we are also very aware that public conversations often follow the loudest promoters of potential fixes for the woes of education. Unfortunately, many of these are led by bright ideas from political leaders, which are not supported by evidence.

The idea, fielded this week by Shadow Education Minister, Tanya Plibersek, to mandate a cap on places for teacher education courses to only those with minimum ATARs of 80, may sound like a great idea. Already it seems to have gained many supporters. However leaders in the field of teacher education, myself included, see this as yet another of those simplistic quick ‘fix’ ideas. It works well as a media grab for a politician but will do little to help encourage people into a teaching career.

In reality should any government act on Tanya Plibersek’s suggestion only a small percentage of the people who enter teacher education courses would be affected.

Had teacher educators been consulted we could have pointed out that fewer than one-in-four teacher education students who enter our universities are chosen on the basis of their ATAR alone. The landscape has changed and school leavers are exploring many other post-school options, rather than entering a program that prepares them for a vocation immediately after school completion.

According to the latest available statistics from AITSL at the undergraduate level, only 36% of commencing initial teacher education students entered straight from secondary education in 2016, which was a 1% decrease on the previous year. The statistics are not yet officially available, but it looks like this figure may have dropped to around 30% for 2019.

The point is fewer students are entering teacher education programs straight from school, and increasing numbers are entering after completing other careers, travel or after working overseas.

Evidence about what an ATAR can tell us

In 2014, the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report noted research findings that indicate ATAR is a good predictor of success for students entering university with strong secondary school performance, but loses predictive capability for those entering university with lower scores. Many students with average or comparatively low senior secondary results also do well once at university. However while this research suggests that rankings are clearly a very good predictor of performance in engineering, agriculture and science, the relationship is low for education.

On the evidence available to date we cannot definitively show that those with higher ATARs become better teachers. This is not to deter universities from encouraging high achieving school leavers into teaching, however a series of reforms are now in place to complement academic scores for would-be teachers. These reforms signal the importance of non-academic traits such as high-level interpersonal skills as well as high-level literacy and numeracy standards, attributes that are vitally important in teaching quality.

Other things we use to select students for teacher education courses

The push to raise ATARs ignores the range of selection methods that universities use to choose teacher education students with the right mix of academic and personal traits. These include looking at prior experience, interviews or psychometric tests (designed to measure a candidate’s suitability for the role).

It also does not take into account the hurdles that teacher education students must clear prior to graduation. Among other assessments, the literacy and numeracy test for initial teacher education students, and the new Teacher Performance Assessment ensure that teaching students meet the robust national teacher professional standards.

How media reporting of ‘low ATARs’ is misleading

The reporting of students with low ATARs being ‘allowed’ into teacher education is misleading and done without context. A student may be accepted into a university course with a lower ATAR than the published cut-off for a variety of reasons. These include:

  • The student has gained further experience and qualifications that supersede their ATAR, as their ATAR may have been acquired years before their university entry
  • The student has been given special consideration due to personal circumstances (such as the death of a parent) if their low ATAR doesn’t reflect prior academic performance
  • The student is a member of a disadvantaged group, and has been granted access to a pathway course during which they have proven they’re capable of undertaking teacher education.

This does not just happen with students entering teacher education courses. Many university courses take students with lower than the published cut-off ATAR (or with no ATARs) for the above, and other, reasons.

The damage uniformed public debate can inflict

Every outburst of public ATAR outrage further deters potential teachers for applying. This is at a time when applications for teacher education enrolments are plummeting as school student numbers are rising.

In 2018, there was a 7.8% national decline in undergraduate applications for teacher education courses and a national 8.9% drop in undergraduate offers for teacher education courses.

In Victoria, which introduced a minimum Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) of 65 in 2018, 22% fewer undergraduate offers were made in the first round – a situation that is likely to be further impacted as the Victorian minimum ATAR levels for teacher education rise to 70 this year.

This scenario is occurring when it is estimated that another 1612 primary and secondary schools will be required in Australia by 2028 ( based on average school size by sector for 2017 derived from ABS data). In NSW alone the prediction is there will be a 21% increase in student numbers by 2031, which means an extra 269,000 students needing teachers.

This is the conversation we should be having

We should be encouraging more potential teachers if we are to avoid a disastrous situation in the future. This means stemming the drop in teacher student applications and curtailing teacher shortages beyond traditionally hard-to-fill places areas.

We all want to attract and retain the best to teach this nation’s future. Instead of confrontational comments to media, let’s sit down and work out ways we can do this together.

Tania Aspland is a Professor in Teacher Education at the Australian Catholic University in Sydney and Dean, Education Policy and Strategy. She provides high-level advice on teacher education, governance and policy. Tania is President of the Australian Council of Deans of Education and sits on a number of boards for the Australian government. She also works closely with directors and leaders of school education in government, Catholic and the independent sectors. Tania’s research focuses on educational policy, leadership and reform, higher education curriculum and teacher education.