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Who is going to teach the kids?

Who is going to teach the kids as the population of school-aged students swells while the pool of teachers shrinks? The maths does not equate. Decisionmakers need to leverage and address the second half of the equation to align the numbers. An important place to start is to ebb the flow of preventable leakage of quality teachers from the pool.

The population of school-aged students is growing

The population of school-aged children has been growing, particularly over the last 10 years when it swelled by half a million to reach 4 million as the Costello baby boomers started school. Regardless of assumptions made about fertility and migration, the compulsory school aged (between six and 17) population is projected to keep growing. The only difference is by how much.

Under a low fertility, low migration scenario (1), it is projected to grow by 0.4 million over the next 10 years. Under a medium fertility, medium migration scenario (2), its half a million. Add to that the children who start school at five and stay through to Year 12, then it has to be asked: who is going to teach them?

Sources: Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) National Report of Schooling data portal and Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Population Projections Australia, 2017-2066.

The pool of teachers is shrinking

Particularly when the pool of teachers is shrinking. Thirty percent of Australia’s teachers are aged 50 and above. This means that Australia will have to renew three out of 10 members of its teaching workforce over the next decade or so.

A decade of falling applicant numbers for undergraduate programs in education suggests that this is not likely to happen. Applications have plummeted by almost a fifth.

For those who do apply and see their studies through to the end, recent history suggests half will initially or eventually choose not to work in the profession. Despite the growth in the number of people qualified to teach primary or secondary school students over the last three Censuses (which the numbers just looked at suggests will not be sustained), the number working as primary, middle, or secondary school teachers, or as school principals, has stagnated. As a proportion, it has declined from 52% in 2006 to 47% in 2016.

Source: Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) Applications, Offers and Acceptances 2020 and ABS’ Census Tablebuilder.

The very real risk is that, if nothing is done, the teaching pool will continue to leak. A lot.

Recent research by the NEiTA Foundation (NEiTA) and the Australian College of Educators (ACE) finds that almost half (48%) of teachers often had thoughts of leaving the profession. If you add to this the teachers who thought about this on the odd occasion, the concerning outcome is that more than four out of every five (84%) of teachers had thoughts of leaving over the past year.

Leaving was more often on the minds of female teachers, teachers not in leadership positions, primary school teachers, teachers in the Government sector, and those teaching in rural or remote locations.

What’s behind teachers’ thoughts of leaving

While the survey did not directly ask what was behind teachers’ thoughts of leaving, their responses to other questions provides some clues. In the mix are perceptions about pay, promotion opportunities, demands on teachers’ time that include and extend beyond teaching, workload - more generally - and the impact that it has on their work-life balance, students’ and sometimes parents’ behaviours, and how all of this impacts their stress and ability to teach at their best. Add to this a pandemic.

Starting from the top, just under half (49%) of teachers claimed that they are paid poorly or very poorly. Their comments reveal teachers’ frustration with not just their level of pay, but that it does not reflect the high expectations placed on them and the extra hours worked. Further, while two-thirds (67%) of teachers placed importance on getting promoted, seven out of ten (71%) said that this rarely happens.

Teachers described their workload as “massive” and expectations as “unrealistic”. Over a quarter (26%) said they work more than a five-day week. Thirty percent worked an extra 10 hours or longer outside of their classrooms at school before heading home and, once home, 20% kept on working for more than 15 hours.

The standout non-teaching activity eating into their time is administrative duties, with 38% dedicating more than 10 hours each week to this task. Teachers expressed frustration about how this impacts the time they have to focus on students and teach. Teachers expressed feelings of being overworked, burnt out, and undervalued. Four out of five said their work-life balance is either less than ideal or non-existent.

Add on top of this the time taken by, and toll of, dealing with behavioural issues – which 68% of teachers indicated consumes more than a tenth of their day – not to mention the demands of parents. It is little wonder then that more than three-quarters (76%) of teachers feel stressed fairly often to most of the time. Or why a third felt that they can be the best teacher they can be only occasionally or very rarely.

What might make them stay (and attract more to come)

While this paints a gloomy picture, it is important to maintain a sense of perspective. An overwhelming majority (87%) of teachers said that they find teaching rewarding or very rewarding.

While short of the near universal view once held, this has survived the passage of time since the last survey in 2017. Teachers like “to make a difference”. They like engaging with students, to watch them learn, grow, and achieve their potential. This is enduring.

The trick is to find ways to (in the words of Perry Como) accentuate the positives and eliminate the negatives - starting with recognising, rewarding, and promoting quality teachers.

While teaching is a labour of love, that does not justify paying teachers at the lower end of the pay scale. Yet, as discussed in this article, the pay gap between teaching and other degree qualified professions widens over time. And, there is a positive correlation between teachers feeling valued and satisfaction with their salaries.

Teachers’ workloads need to be corrected so they can focus on what they are passionate about doing and are good at – teaching. It could also give them back their evenings, weekends, and work-life balance. Finding ways to lighten the administrative burden on teachers should be a priority for all systems and schools. Schools should have an eye to introducing efficiencies into existing administrative practices, such as through software solutions, and to finding new ways to reduce or share the burden, such as through inhouse or outsourced support services.

Finally, behavioural issues, even if limited to one or two students, can impact a whole class. Solutions need to engage the school communities more broadly. Particularly when pandemic conditions create challenges to the behaviours and mental wellbeing of all. Investment in building the capabilities of teachers and the resources available to them is a great place to start. But that is not where it should end.

Who are going to teach the kids? If systems and schools can get these things right, then not merely the great teachers who are already part of the workforce, but those who are similarly attracted by the opportunity to make a difference.

In a separate and earlier survey of high achievers by the Grattan Institute, while the ‘ability to make a difference’ was judged most important when choosing their occupations, their collective judgment that teaching outscored their chosen profession on this front was insufficient to outweigh the positives of the alternatives. Of note, relatively ‘high earnings’ and ‘a career to be proud of’ weighed heavily in favour of their chosen profession.


About the author

Mary Clarke is the founder and principal of DXP Consulting, and the lead author of the 2018/19 Parents Report Card. She has headed the education policy function for a professional body, and executive and senior public service economic and policy roles. Mary holds an Executive Masters in Public Administration and an Honours degree in Economics.


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