Addressing the highly skilled teacher shortage
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Addressing the highly skilled teacher shortage

While many industries and sectors face acute challenges finding and keeping great staff, perhaps none is more crucial to Australia’s future than the looming shortage of highly-skilled teachers in schools. Professor Mark Hutchinson, President of Science & Technology Australia, discusses this pressing issue.

The Government’s Jobs and Skills Summit has focused minds on what Australia needs to do to build the highly skilled workforce we need to secure our economic future.

A recent report from Universities Australia predicted demand for high school teachers will outstrip supply by 4000 in coming years. By any measure, that’s a dramatic shortfall. And where that shortage is going to have the biggest bite are the crucial fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Already, we have a significant proportion of teachers teaching science and maths and technology across the country without strong prior subject knowledge.

On the latest data, around one in four Year eight students (23 per cent) is taught by non- specialist maths teachers and one in ten (9 per cent) by non-specialist science teachers.

Yet the evidence is in: when taught by out- of-field teachers, no matter how hard a teacher works, students’ enthusiasm and desire to continue in maths and science often falls.

To fix this, we need to attract more quality candidates, lift completion rates for teaching degrees, and boost the supply of specialist teachers in science and maths and technology.

Teaching is a stimulating and inspiring career choice. Teachers do one of the most important jobs in our communities. They nurture the next generations of young minds, give students a strong foundation of knowledge, and instil a lifelong love of learning.

And still the teaching profession is not yet as rewarded, recognised and respected as it needs to be. We need to tackle this to give Australian children the very best start in life.

Higher teacher salaries would telegraph the immense value society places on teaching and boost the academic achievement levels of the candidates applying for teaching courses.

One disincentive for academic high achievers to go into teaching is the perception that they might feel bored teaching the same thing year after year. To solve this problem, teaching needs to be reframed as the intellectually challenging and incredibly rewarding career that it is. This requires clear pathways for advancement into roles as specialist teachers – where teachers are supported and rewarded to improve teaching practice in their fields.

And we really need those specialist teachers in STEM. Research by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute highlights that, at the current rate of training, it would take 20 years to ensure every Australian student is taught by a maths teacher with specialist training.

In the short-term, a quick fix would be to give current specialist STEM teachers an opportunity to work across multiple schools.

An extra benefit of this solution is that specialist teachers would be exposed to different teaching methods across multiple schools. This would also help to accelerate career paths for those teachers, create more full-time or larger time fraction positions, and further elevate the status of teaching.

In the medium-term, there is an opportunity to retrain and deploy some of the thousands of talented science and technology staff who lost jobs in the university sector during the pandemic – and others keen to move out of short-term research employment contracts.

Doing so will help to tackle the shortages of specialist STEM teachers in schools, including in regional Australia where this shortage is most pronounced.

To identify and prepare this untapped STEM teaching talent, a ready solution is at hand. A national STEM organisation with access to this specialist workforce, in partnership with an accredited teaching training provider, could be tasked to provide an end-to-end STEM-specialist program similar to Teach for Australia. Collectively this would prepare STEM professionals with the necessary experience and skills for an intensive teaching program.

Such a program could also be expanded in the future to provide opportunities for STEM educators to engage with STEM professionals as part of their career progression.

In the long-term, we need to do more to encourage students to study maths and science at school in Australia. Our economic future depends on it. The drop in the desire to study these subjects is not only an immediate problem – but one that will damage our long-term workforce capabilities, national income and living standards.

All of the big new emerging technologies poised to revolutionise our lives and economy – artificial intelligence, machine learning and quantum computing – will need a highly-trained workforce with strong maths skills to build and maintain strong sovereign capabilities.

To fix this problem, careers education and advice needs to provide broader information to students about the strong benefits of studying STEM subjects, and the immense and hugely rewarding career opportunities that can provide for them.

Australia’s future economy – and our future workforce – will depend on our students having that essential bedrock knowledge of science and maths.

Without it, we’ll be lost.

This article was originally published in Education Matters Magazine – to read the issue download it here. 

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