Schools are struggling with major teacher shortages and the reason is clear.
Australia’s education system is missing one fundamental part – a national teacher recruitment and retention strategy.
Every other country I have reviewed has one; here’s England’s, here is Bulgaria’s, Zimbabwe’s is recently announced. I’m not emphasising this because we should copy other countries. There is a much stronger argument – internationally the importance of the teaching profession is widely understood, with appropriately weighty policy attention.
Australia’s current Quality Initial Teacher Education Review will make a contribution in this regard and it has broadened terms of reference to include “attracting and selecting high-quality candidates into the teaching profession“. However, the scope does not include retaining teachers nor effective allocation of them to areas of need. This is an area of pressing need and one of the structural systemic failings of our education system.
It will not be addressed with piecemeal policy shots.
The fact that we don’t have a national strategy on this speaks volumes about how teachers are undervalued in Australia; and how few with political power recognise the foundational role teachers hold in our economy, social fabric and democracy.
The difficulties arising from this neglect, and there are many, include: the current crisis in recruitment of teachers (shockingly evident in NSW where every week another school has to take action because they are so understaffed), shifts to a less secure workforce, declining academic standards in admission to teaching degree, deteriorating work conditions and workload.
We desperately need a teacher recruitment and retention strategy – as a tool to redress this neglect, provide due respect to teachers and contribute to broader systemic reforms to reverse the declines we are seeing in many educational indicators (and no, I don’t just mean PISA scores). Piecemeal initiatives here and there are not enough, and those initiatives sometimes appear to willfully neglect the evidence base for what works in attracting and retaining teachers.
NSW’s recent announcement to provide what amounts to a cash incentive to attract mid-career professionals over to teaching, with six months of coursework and a six-month paid internship is yet another example of foolish policy.
This approach has already failed once, as demonstrated by the Commonwealth Government response to the Action now, classroom ready teachers report some years ago.
Attracting, recruiting and retaining candidates to a profession is a complex, multifactorial and lengthy process that will not be solved with a single incentive. It needs coordinated, comprehensive strategic response, with a long-term plan and system wide reform. This is not the same as the National teacher Workforce Strategy which does not lay out a plan to adress problems, but suggests monitoring via the Australian Teacher Workforce Data project which is still not fully operational after more than a decade in development.
We need a strategic plan built on evidence.
What the evidence says
A systematic review published earlier this year by See, Morris, Gorard and El Soufi provides an up-to-date analysis of the relevant literature. As a systematic review, which excludes research that does not meet research quality benchmarks, it provides a quality-assured evidence base. What does it say?
I am guessing this will not be news to the teachers out there:
“The only approach that seems to work at all is the offer of monetary inducements, but there are caveats” (See, Morris, Gorard and El Soufi, 2021, p.2.)
The caveats include that monetary inducements work only in attracting those already interested in teaching. The monetary inducements must also be large enough to compensate for challenging work conditions – and provide some offset for teachers who could be attracted to better paying jobs. Reforming both working conditions and financial incentives is important to attract high quality candidates to the profession. The recent Gallop review Valuing the Teaching Profession made it clear current teacher salaries are not competitive with those of similarly qualified professions – addressing this would require a 10 to 15 percent rise in teacher salaries.
The systematic review also suggests that financial incentives also work better for attracting young females to teaching. They are less likely to work on older and male teachers. It is unclear how they would work in attracting diverse candidates to work in diverse Australian schools. Importantly, the monetary incentives are also only temporary, with no residual benefit. Once the incentive is finished, its power is gone. However monetary inducements do also work in retaining teachers, especially in changing school contexts. Thus, effective policies are more likely those with incentives for entering initial teacher education, and satisfactory pay across the full career span with special incentives for those working in challenging schools.
The review found no evidence for locally recruiting and training teacher education programs intended to supply hard-to-staff schools. Nor that teachers trained via alternative routes are more likely to stay in teaching – why would we keep investing money there then? It also found no good evidence that “pathways” improve recruitment into programs, with only one program shown to be effective in that regard.
There were some, complex findings regarding the effect of professional support for all teachers and mentoring for beginning teachers. Such effects impact on working conditions and workload, which are important considerations.
Australia faces some unique challenges in regard to teacher recruitment and retention. In the 2020 report The Profession At Risk I had the unsavory task of analysing Australia’s declining trends in Initial Teacher Education admission standards, and degree completion rates.There are clear and disturbing trends in ATAR scores, but limited transparency on standards overall. Despite more and more students entering teaching degrees, less than 60 per cent of education students complete their degree within six years. I argue that the poor transparency and low standard for entry in Australia, far below international benchmarks, may be contributing to ( not a result of) the dwindling esteem of the profession- adding a unique element to the Australian teacher recruitment landscape.
Other analyses suggest Australia also has specific problems with allocation of our teaching workforce.The OECD report Effective Teacher Policies shows that, uniquely, Australian schools have more teachers, and better qualified and more experienced teachers, in advantaged schools than in disadvantaged schools.
But we also have a notably low share of top performing students who go on to be teachers; and those students are also more likely to teach in advantaged schools. This stands in contrast to the majority of OECD country who allocate the most high achieving, qualified and experienced teachers to the most disadvantaged schools. This is another reason why we need a comprehensive and coordinated national strategy.
Like waiting for Godot
Teacher recruitment and retention isn’t a new issue for Australia. There have been periodic crises and reviews over that last four decades. A review way back in 1986 suggested a more coordinated, and politically neutral approach was needed. Recommendations have rarely been acted upon. A 2014 Australian DFAT report Teacher Quality Evidence review, exploring suitable policies for international development recipient countries found
“The systemic development of teacher quality is dependent, first and foremost, on effective teacher recruitment strategies…Supporting effective teacher workforce management by donors can and should include strategies and interventions to deploy teachers in hard–to-reach areas as well as supporting national governments to develop rewarding conditions of service for teachers, ensuring that they are adequately remunerated”
If this is the advice we are providing for international aid programs a decade ago, why are we yet to address it for our own precious education system?
Rachel Wilson is associate professor at The Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She has expertise in educational assessment, research methods and programme evaluation, with broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system-level reform and has been involved in designing, implementing and researching many university and school education reforms. Rachel is on Twitter @RachelWilson100