The Quality Initial Teacher Education Review, released on Thursday, is the latest instalment in the debate about the best ways to improve teaching in Australia, particularly the need to attract more high achievers to the profession, improve the rigour of initial teacher education, and ensure better support for new teachers when they graduate.

Teachers who have a strong academic record themselves are likely to be more effective in the classroom. Grattan Institute research shows that a higher-achieving teacher workforce would give the typical Australian student an extra 6 to 12 months of learning by Year 9, possibly much more.

But in Australia, far fewer high achievers choose teaching today than they did 30 years ago. Demand from high achievers for teaching fell by a third over the past decade – more than for any other undergraduate field of study. Only 3 per cent of high achievers now choose teaching for their
undergraduate studies, compared to 19 per cent for science, 14 per cent for health, and 9 per cent for engineering.

Grattan’s research shows that for high-achieving school-leavers, teaching is perceived to fall short in two key areas: intellectual challenge and pay. Addressing these issues is critical to making teaching more attractive to high achievers.

The review’s first recommendation is to raise the status of teaching by, among other things, embarking on a national recruitment campaign and encouraging the community to nominate teachers for awards in the Order of Australia. These would be welcome steps. But unless they are backed-up by substantial change to the structure of the profession, we should not expect much to improve.

Simply saying that teaching is valued, without demonstrating that teaching is a profession where deep levels of expertise are both necessary and rewarded, is unlikely to fool anyone.

The review recommends a number of promising strategies to improve the status of teaching, but it stops well short of a concrete plan of action. Making a start on such a plan should be the first order of business for whoever is sworn in as education minister after the imminent federal election.

There are two issues that federal and state governments need to tackle straight away to boost the status of teaching.

First, governments need to improve the pay. This should be done by providing incentives for high achievers to study teaching and by overhauling the teacher career path, to increase pay at the top end of the profession.

The federal government should work with the states to establish a scholarship program that provides $10,000 per year cash-in-hand to high-achieving students (with ATARs of 80 or above) who choose to go into teaching.

Governments should also restructure the teacher career path, so that expert teachers are better recognised and given greater responsibility to build teaching quality. Two new permanent positions should be created – Master Teachers and Instructional Specialists – that are limited to the best of the best.

Instructional Specialists – paid $40,000 more than the highest standard pay rate for teachers, or about $140,000 a year – would work in their schools to set the standard for good teaching practice and build teaching capacity. They should work particularly closely with beginning teachers.

Master Teachers – paid $80,000 more than the highest standard pay rate, or about $180,000 a year – would be responsible for supporting teachers across multiple schools, to ensure what happens in the classroom reflects the best available evidence about teaching practice.

Second, governments should ensure teachers have enough time to prepare for great teaching. A Grattan survey of 5000 teachers across the country found that over 90 per cent believe they don’t have enough time to properly prepare for classroom teaching – the core part of their job.

At the moment, we expect teachers to do too many things that don’t require teaching expertise – from supervising lunch breaks to facilitating extra-curriculum activities. Teachers are also frustrated that they have to spend time reinventing the wheel when it comes to lesson planning. Giving teachers the time and tools they need to focus on what they do best – classroom teaching – is critical. Together, these reforms would send a powerful signal that expertise matters, and that the best teachers will be rewarded.

Jordana Hunter

Education Program Director
Dr Jordana Hunter is the Education Program Director at Grattan Institute. She has an extensive background in public policy design and implementation, with expertise in school education reform as well as economic policy.

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