We need to attract more high achievers to teaching - Grattan Institute

Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge wants Australia’s best and brightest to take on teaching. He’s right to pursue this goal, but it’s a big challenge. Today’s generation of bright young Australians rarely see teaching as an attractive option. Only 3 per cent of high achievers choose teaching for their undergraduate studies, whereas 19 per cent choose science, 14 per cent health, and 9 per cent engineering.

It wasn’t always this way. Demand from high achievers for teaching has steadily declined over the past 30 years. Over the past decade, demand fell by a third – more than for any other undergraduate field of study.

The low status of teaching has become self-reinforcing, putting off high achievers who might otherwise want to teach. By contrast, high-performing countries get many high-achieving students to apply, and then select the most promising candidates.

We need more high achievers in teaching. People who are good learners themselves are far better placed to become great teachers. And as we expect more from schools, we need the best teachers, so that our students have the skills for work and life.

Australia’s failure to attract bright young people to teaching is not just a cultural problem. Government policies that impact on teacher support, pay, and career progression strongly influence who becomes a teacher.

A Grattan Institute survey of almost 950 young high achievers in 2019 shows what governments can do to attract more high achievers. It found that more bright young Australians would take up teaching if it offered higher top-end pay and greater career challenge.

It found that high achievers worry about getting stuck in the one classroom. And they want pay rates that recognise teaching expertise rather than simply years of service.

Bright young Australians are right to be put-off by teaching salaries at the top-end. To attract the best, teacher salaries at the top need to be more competitive with other professions. A high-achiever going into a career in law or engineering will earn many tens of thousands of dollars a year more by their mid-40s than if they went in to teaching.

This is not to suggest that high achievers are only concerned about themselves. Our research shows they are highly motivated by a sense of altruism – the ability to ‘make a difference’ was the most important attribute high achievers identified in selecting a career. The problem for teaching was that the high achievers believed they could make almost as much of a difference in other careers.

We would urge Minister Tudge’s new review of initial teacher education to recommend setting a national goal of doubling the proportion of high achievers who choose teaching over the next 10 years. Our 2019 report shows this goal is achievable if governments take these three steps.

First, offer $10,000 cash-in-hand scholarships to encourage high achievers to study teaching. Scholarships are one the most cost-effective ways to sway young high achievers. In our model, scholarship applications in Australia would be open to students with an ATAR of 80 or above (or a comparable level of achievement at university). Recipients would also need to have the good people-skills essential for effective teaching – and they would be required to work at government schools for at least their first few years in the job.

Second, state governments should significantly improve teacher career pathways and pay at the top-end so that expertise is recognised and rewarded. We suggest creating two new expert roles, ‘Instructional Specialist’ and ‘Master Teacher’, which would give the best teachers extra time and extra responsibility to improve teaching within their own schools and across the school system. We suggest the outstanding teachers appointed to those roles be paid a lot more – in Western Australia our recommended Instructional Specialists would get around $145,000 a year, and Master Teachers $185,000 a year.

Third, governments should launch a marketing campaign to ‘sell’ teaching as a rewarding and challenging career. The campaign can’t be rhetoric alone; it should sell the new reforms to ensure good candidates are supported, challenged, and satisfied once they start working in schools.

This reform package would not only help to attract more high achievers into teaching, it would ensure current teachers received better support and opportunities for career progression and higher top-end pay.

All three schools sectors in Australia – government, private, and Catholic – should implement the reform package. The problem is widespread, and we need a coordinated effort to address it.

The reforms would not be cheap, but it would be worth it, because great teachers are the key to better student results.

Julie Sonnemann

Education Deputy Program Director
Julie is the Education Deputy Program Director at Grattan. She has significant experience in education policy and system design, and has co-authored several high profile reports on effective teaching, professional learning, equity and funding.

While you’re here…

Grattan Institute is an independent not-for-profit think tank. We don’t take money from political parties or vested interests. Yet we believe in free access to information. All our research is available online, so that more people can benefit from our work.

Which is why we rely on donations from readers like you, so that we can continue our nation-changing research without fear or favour. Your support enables Grattan to improve the lives of all Australians.

Donate now.

Danielle Wood – CEO