Teacher looks at student sticking hand up in the classroom

Why our best and brightest don’t teach

by Julie Sonnemann and Jonathan Nolan

Published by The Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 26 August

Bright young Australians are interested in becoming teachers, but are put off by low pay and poor career progression. That’s the finding of Australia’s first survey of young high achievers on their attitudes to teaching as a career choice.

To inform our new report on how to boost teacher quality and student performance, the Grattan Institute asked almost 1000 bright young people (aged 18-25 and with an ATAR of 80 or higher) about their study and career plans.

We found that high-achieving young Australians are very altruistic. They rank “the ability to make a difference” as their number-one factor when choosing a career. About 70 per cent said they would be willing to give teaching a go. One high achiever described teaching as the “best input you can have for another individual”.

But a high ATAR opens the door to countless careers – many of which pay a lot more than teaching.

Bright young people know that if they go into teaching, they will be staring down the barrel of a lifetime of pay much lower than their classmates who choose degrees such as engineering, science, or law. More than 50 per cent of law graduates working full time in their 40s earn more than $140,000; for teaching graduates that figure is 5 per cent.

High achievers don’t rank pay as the most important factor when choosing a career, but the pay in teaching is their biggest turn-off. Teachers are not on the poverty line – they earn well above the average wage. And for teachers just out of university, a starting salary of $70,000 is on par with many of their peers in other professions.

But the pay in teaching does not rise much with expertise. Teacher pay at the top shows the biggest gap to other professions. For a school-leaver with a high ATAR, choosing teaching is a long-term financial sacrifice which means they will be unlikely to afford a house in the heart of our major capital cities. Faced with this prospect, most high achievers interested in teaching are deciding to enrol in other degrees instead.

It wasn’t always like this. Teaching used to be a leg-up into a professional occupation for generations of working-class Australians. In the 1950s, teaching students received a scholarship valued at about half the average full-time wage, and up until the 1980s, teachers earned a salary similar to other professionals.

But teacher pay has been declining for 40 years relative to other professions, and with it fewer bright young people have chosen teaching as a career. Our survey shows they worry not just about pay but also getting “stuck” in the classroom. They want a career that provides more challenge and opportunities to develop professionally.

Today, only 3 per cent of high achievers choose teaching for their undergraduate studies, compared to 19 per cent for science, 14 per cent for health, and 9 per cent for engineering. Over the past decade, demand from high achievers for teaching fell by a third – more than for any other undergraduate field of study.

Demand from high achievers is so low that many students are now admitted to teaching through ‘non-ATAR’ routes. Fewer than half those students finish their degree.

We need more bright and eager young people in the classroom. International evidence shows that people who did well at school themselves can go on to become teachers who help their students learn more.

Australia is now at risk of losing our “clever country” moniker. Our kids are falling behind, even in absolute terms. On international tests, the typical year 9 student today performs worse than a similar aged student in 2003; by 12 months in maths, and nine months in reading.

We can never prove what is causing our students to fall behind, but it’s difficult to ignore the fact that Australia’s test score decline has coincided with the retirement of many of the teachers who were recruited when salaries were much more competitive with other professions.

Regardless of the cause, one of the best ways to get us back on the right track is to attract more bright young people into teaching.

If Australia is to catch up, bold action must be taken. Grattan’s new report, Attracting high achievers to teachingproposes a $1.6 billion reform package for government schools to double the number of high achievers who choose to become teachers. It would increase the average ATAR of teaching graduates to 85 within the next decade.

The package includes $10,000-a-year scholarships for high achievers who take up teaching, and new career paths for leaders of the profession with pay of up to $180,000 – about $80,000 more than the current highest standard pay rate for teachers.

The immediate goal should be to send a strong message to our best and brightest – if you want a challenging and well-paid career, choose teaching. The long-term national imperative is to create a better-educated, and therefore more prosperous, Australia.