Federal President at the Australian Education Union (AEU), Correna Haythorpe, discusses the need to focus on our teachers before thinking about reviewing the national school curriculum.
Those who want to reform our national school curriculum should take a deep breath. Before we start changing the syllabus, we must first ensure that we have done everything we can to let our students access a broad curriculum by giving our teachers a chance to really teach.
It’s hard to talk about education without being pulled into the curriculum debate. Should STEM subjects be front and centre? Are languages the way of the future? Should students be grounded in the basics of literacy and numeracy?
The answer is that they are actually the wrong questions. What is generally forgotten is the central, and vital role teachers play in the curriculum debate. You can have the best school curriculum in the world, but without fully qualified and well supported teachers to deliver it, our students will not benefit.
Before focusing for too long on whether our schools should prioritise STEM or literacy and numeracy, we really should prioritise our teachers.
Recruiting and training sufficient numbers of teachers to give students access to a broad curriculum sometimes seems to be an afterthought of governments. A clear example is the number of teachers currently teaching subjects outside of their core specialty. Surveys show between 20% and 40% of teachers teaching mathematics are teaching out of field. Clearly this isn’t ideal.
Resourcing is a huge issue when it comes to supporting teachers. Data from the OECD Programme for International School Assessment and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study from 2017 showed Year 8 maths and science students in adequately-resourced schools performed significantly better than those in under-resourced schools. The studies also showed staff shortages are six times more likely to impact students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and these students are three times more likely to be at a school where poor infrastructure impacts learning.
The original Gonski school funding agreement recognised this. Principals, teachers, support staff and students in public schools were going to benefit from the biggest investment of needs-based funding in a generation. 2018 was finally going to be the year that they received the resources that would allow them to reduce teacher shortages and enable students to really explore the curriculum.
Unfortunately this focus on needs-based funding and investment in teaching in public schools ended under the Federal Coalition. Public schools have experienced $1.9 billion in cuts, while earlier this year a senior secondary curriculum review was announced by the Commonwealth as part of the draft National Schools Reform Agreement (NSRA).
Putting aside the fundamental problems with the NSRA for now, the fact that the Morrison Government is focusing on curriculum reform instead of investing in teacher development is putting the cart before the horse. Surely we need fully-qualified teachers teaching their preferred subjects before we are in a position to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the curriculum.
Earlier this year the Federal Government acknowledged a problem with falling numbers of school student STEM enrolments and highlighted STEM teacher recruitment as a priority. However the government did not provide any long-term solutions and failed to produce a comprehensive plan to fix teacher shortages.
Any approach to addressing falling enrolments in subjects must be part of a comprehensive plan to ensure all public schools are properly resourced.
The best thing Prime Minister Morrison could do to help the teaching profession to improve student outcomes is not to push through a premature curriculum review, but to restore the $1.9 billion taken from public school funding in 2018 and 2019 by his government.
We also need a concerted strategy to improve the recruitment and retention of teachers across all curriculum areas, involving comprehensive workforce planning, targeted Initial Teacher Education recruitment, better pay and conditions for staff, and attraction and retention measures to provide fully-qualified teachers for schools experiencing shortages.
The solution isn’t just relying on technical solutions such as ‘teaching by video’ or employing people without proper teaching qualifications, such as through the Federal Coalition backed ‘Teach For Australia’ (TFA) scheme.
The TFA program recruits professionals from the private sector to teach in public schools. It has cost taxpayers $77 million so far, with only 124 teachers trained during the first five years of the program still working in schools.
Programs producing under-qualified teachers are not good for building a strong learning environment. Surely fixing this issue is a higher priority than pushing through an ideologically-motivated review of the national school curriculum.
Most importantly, any change to the curriculum must be driven by and fully involve the teaching profession. Teaching is our craft and our passion. If we can get this right, then generations of students will reap the benefits.