The release last week of the Teacher Workforce Shortages Issues Paper came with few surprises. The media has been rife with stories of plans to address the crisis of teacher attrition for months, and many of the solutions suggested in the paper have already been covered in detail.
As the stories have unfolded, I’ve been reminded of the classic collection of folk tales, One Thousand and One Nights. In the stories, King Shahrayar is betrayed by his wife and in an extreme example of over-reaction swears to wed and murder every eligible bride in the land. Stepping in to the fray, the Grand Vizier’s daughter Shahrazad volunteers to marry the King and develops a plan with her younger sister to put an end to the King’s killing spree.
Every night, Shahrazad spins a tale to captivate the King’s attention, always leaving it on a cliffhanger before dawn. Delaying the inevitable, the King’s new bride tells story after story until – after the eponymous 1001 nights – she has exhausted her repertoire and the violent King has been calmed and cured of his revenge-lust.
The proposed solutions to the teacher shortage have the distinct feel of Shahrazad delaying the inevitable. From an Aladdin-like obsession with treasures and gold through to the recurrent motif of the magical genie in the lamp who can fix problems with a wish, there’s something fantastical about the ideas to stem the attrition of teachers from a system that is so obviously collapsing in on itself for bigger, much more complex reasons than money and perception.
In 1001 Nights, the queen is telling tales to stave off her own death at the hands of the insane and vengeful King. In our context, the stories serve to prop up and reinforce a bloated, outmoded, and intransigent system that needs a significant overhaul, not a handful of stop-gap measures.
If you’re a teacher, chances are you’ve been too busy to keep on top of the myriad solutions getting thrown around to address the sudden exodus of your colleagues. From fast track programs through to qualified teacher status, to throwing student teachers straight into classrooms within 6 months of starting their training, people are designing many programs to try to increase the volume of new and qualified teachers entering the profession. Meanwhile, attrition from every sector, including private schools, continues to grow and grow. According to DESE modelling, “these shortages could worsen over the coming years, with the demand for secondary teachers to exceed the supply of new graduate teachers by around 4,100 between 2021 to 2025.”
The ALP has outlined its plan to stem teacher shortages. It’s interesting to note that the typically political focus here is also on stopping “the slide in student results”. Provocative language like “The Morrison Government has let our children down” and “This is a disaster for students” might make good political copy, but it does little to address the underlying problems.
Some of the points from the ALP plan are expanded upon further in the Ministerial paper, including:
- Boosting funds to the High Achieving Teachers Program
- Accelerating Initial Teacher Education programs and providing more direct pathways from industry into teaching
- “prioritising 60,000 permanent visa applications by overseas skilled workers to fill urgently needed jobs, including teaching”
- Reducing HELP debts in regional and remote areas
- Committing $50.8 million to create 5000 bursaries for high achieving students to complete teacher training
Meanwhile, other measures have been suggested to attempt to address the workload issues faced by current teachers. Some of these, such as the NSW plan to provide a bank of resources and lesson plans, have fallen on very stoney ground. Teachers have recoiled from the idea that, instead of providing much needed time and collaborative space, they can simply dip into the cookie cutter lessons provided to them and thus “save time” by sacrificing professional autonomy. Stephanie Wescott, PhD candidate at Monash University, is equally critical of the lack of autonomy for teachers in Victoria, and is concerned about policies that give teachers “less freedom to teach in ways they would like to”.
The recent bargaining agreement in Victoria has caused a similar level of uproar, though it seems to have received less press than the NSW proposals. In the Catholic sector, bargaining is still ongoing in several dioceses, with the current proposals largely matching what has been agreed upon for the State schools and in the Sale diocese. These changes include:
- A reduction in face-to-face teaching time of one hour per week in 2023 and a further 30 minutes in 2024
- ‘Quarantining’ of teacher time for planning (as opposed to meetings and other impositions)
- Time in lieu payments for any excursions and extra curricular activities above the 38 hours full time/pro rata part time
- A 0.3% structural salary adjustment followed by a 1% increase for each year of the agreement.
Schools are now faced with tough decisions. Where will the extra time come from? Many schools will shave 5 minutes from teaching periods, resulting in a reduction of instructional time. How will excursions be funded or staffed? In regional areas, with long travel times to the art galleries and cultural experiences of the city, these excursions will likely be reduced or cancelled. In a climate where it is proving harder and harder to recruit teachers, it will be very difficult for schools to absorb the impact of these changes by employing more staff. There is the chance of moving some responsibilities onto ancillary and support staff, but research via the Grattan Institute suggests that we already don’t exactly know what this significant chunk of the education workforce actually does.
Delaying the inevitable
This “sudden” attrition from schools has been building for a long time. The education system – not just in Australia but across many countries – has not kept up with the rate of change in society. While COVID and remote learning exacerbated and highlighted some of the problems, the rot had already set in.
Pasi Sahlberg, in a piece from June this year, stated that the proposed solutions will miss the mark. Rather than the 1% per annum pay rise negotiated by the Union, he suggests that a 10-15% increase would be needed to make the profession attractive compared to other industries. He also highlights the need for more collaborative time and a mentor-teacher model for graduates which reflects practices from the medical world, an idea which is reflected in David Hastie’s piece for the SMH. Jim Watterston and Larissa McLean Davies of the University of Melbourne also agree, highlighting the benefits of mentoring as well as the need to address different socio economic bands of schools.
Alison Bedford and Naomi Barnes, writing for the Australian Association for Research in Education, question the validity of the NSW proposals in light of the failure to achieve exactly the same outcome in Queensland a decade ago through the Curriculum 2 Classroom program. They point out that the answer is not in trying to replace a part of the job that teachers actually want to do, but in providing additional support staff to reduce the workload in areas that actually get in the way of effective planning and collaboration.
Some, like Professor Kev Purnell of CQ University, are suggesting that an increased awareness of the role of hybrid and blended learning will be needed to deal with a future where the demand for teachers outstrips the supply.
The teacher shortage is a hugely complex problem, and one that won’t be solved through quick-fixes, or by throwing money at Initial Teacher Education. Making teacher training more attractive is fine, but it avoids the obvious truth that once teachers arrive in the classroom, they often only last for a few years before leaving for good. Retention of quality teachers will require much a greater effort. The renumeration proposed by the unions is not sufficient, nor are measures like providing pre-prepared resources in an attempt to short circuit the “burden” of planning lessons. Reductions to face to face teaching time and an increase of in lieu payments for extra curricular activities seem like a positive move, but will undoubtedly negatively impact students, particularly in regional and remote areas.
Where to next?
More work needs to be done to get to the root cause of teacher attrition and the obvious issues with the public perceptions of the industry. In most schools students are still shuffling between 50 minute periods (or 45, after the EBA) up to six times a day, through a timetable that closely resembles those of our schools twenty or more years ago. The levels of apathy and disengagement from young people – often the root cause of behavioural issues and other problems – are understandable when you consider that the system is not suited to them developmentally, emotionally, or as preparation for their lives outside of school.
How can teachers be expected to perform under the burden of propping up a system that is so obviously unsuited for the people it is supposed to serve? While some schools are more confident at pushing back against the rigid boundaries of the system many – underfunded, understaffed, and crowded – lack the capacity to make the changes needed without support from above.
If we want teachers to stay, we need an overhaul. Increased pay and considerations around workload are all well and good, but as former Education Department secretary Lisa Paul said when she addressed the ministers, there is no “silver bullet”. Increasing the attractiveness of Initial Teacher Education may see an uptick in the number of bodies available to schools in the short term, but in the longer view those teachers will probably leave at just the same rate.
Shahrazad’s plan worked eventually. The King calmed down, and decided not to murder his wife in cold blood. But is that what we want for the education system? Do we really want to just keep delaying the inevitable, hoping that eventually things will just settle down and return to “normal”?
I think we can do better. I believe that by reimagining the purpose of education, the structure and “grammar” of schooling, how and why we assess students, and how we actually define the role of teachers we can not only stem the attrition but turn education into a profession that people want to be a part of.
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