'Teach for NSW' is tinkering


NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell’s recent announcement, Teach for NSW, is aimed at fast tracking mid-career professionals into teaching and is yet another a symptom of the problem, not a long-term solution.

The Minister uses the language of “big reforms and ideas”, but the solutions she is proposing, a NSW version of Teach for Australia, does little to address the structural issues facing the profession in a comprehensive and holistic manner.

The teacher shortage crisis in NSW is a result of years of under-resourcing and neglect. The piecemeal, quick-fix solution, which fails to address the fundamental issues the profession faces, will have a limited impact and ultimately kick the can down the road for future generations to solve.

Any number of inquiries have identified the profession's recruitment and retention concerns:

  • attracting high-performing young people into initial teacher education courses
  • ensuring graduates complete their initial teacher training
  • ensuring graduates obtain suitable placements of employment and are appropriately inducted into the profession (successfully attain proficient teacher status)
  • retaining teachers in the profession
  • retaining high-performing teachers in the classroom.

Regrettably, the self-styled Teach for NSW program proposed by the minister sidesteps the first two concerns and jumps straight to trying to plug the gaps across the state; gaps, incidentally, that the union has been warning about for years.

It is also not entirely clear just which staffing problems this new proposal is intended to solve. It is assumed there will be a focus on filling the gaps in the many challenging, hard-to-staff schools across the state. In this respect, the success of the program must be gauged against how well the program addresses the fourth and fifth points around retention issues. Unfortunately, the proposal offers little insight into how these structural concerns will be addressed.

Short degrees

Early discussion around the program design suggests it will allow academics, professionals, and subject matter experts to undergo shorter, more flexible education degrees which take into account their existing knowledge and teaching experience. It is unclear how this would apply to the primary context where teachers are required to teach across all Key Learning Areas (KLAs). This highlights the secondary school-centric aspect of the program and is a further indication of its limited application.

Details of how the program will operate are scarce. However, it appears participants will undertake postgraduate degrees that are re-organised so students cover “the most important content first”, then work in a classroom while they complete the rest. The expected time frame is that these students will be placed in the classroom on salary, as interns, within six months.

A recently released federal discussion paper on university teacher training found that, nationally, almost 50 percent of trainee teachers failed to complete their degrees. While some of these trainees would have quickly come to the conclusion they were not suited to a career in teaching, anecdotally, we know that many leave in this early stage due to the high levels of stress they experience during their pre-service placement.

It remains to be seen what strategies and resources will be put in place to ensure these fast-tracked graduates successfully complete their Initial Teacher Education (ITE). If the Teach for Australia program is anything to go by, the NSW equivalent will surely need to provide substantial support mechanisms to ensure participants don’t stumble at the first hurdle.

Teach for Australia associates, as they are called, are given a maximum teaching load of 0.8FTE (full time equivalent). They are also provided with a teaching and leadership adviser, a dedicated academic mentor, and a school mentor (who receives time release – four hours per week in an associate's first year and two hours per week in an associate's second year).

What about graduates?

It stands to reason that, if these support structures are appropriate for “the best and brightest from other professions”, who presumably come to teaching with a wealth of workplace and life experience, they should also be standard for the graduate teacher, fresh out of university, who is working towards attaining Proficiency in an increasingly challenging professional environment.

Whether these fast-tracked Teach for NSW interns will continue in the profession long term is uncertain. More importantly, will they still be teaching in the most challenging and difficult-to-staff schools? Unless there is some meaningful reform with respect to teacher workload, teacher career pathways, and teacher remuneration, it is hard to see how anything is likely to change simply by changing the manner in which teachers enter the profession.

So why isn’t the profession attracting and retaining the numbers it needs? The recent NSW Productivity Commission stated explicitly that the attractiveness of teaching has clearly declined relative to other professions. “A lot of factors are driving that trend, including the perception of teaching as a career and the complexity around the role,” said NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell.

Addressing each of the five key points listed on page 1 is vital to solving this problem yet this recent proposal does little in this regard. The minister admitted in parliament that the profession is struggling to attract students, with the number of students beginning teaching degrees in NSW falling by almost 30 percent over five years: from 9620 in 2014 to 6780 in 2019. With recent estimates stating NSW will need 11,000 new teachers by 2030, a bespoke, mid-career pathway into teaching is unlikely to be the answer.

While it is recognised that appropriate recognition of prior learning and previous professional experience has a part to play, the ongoing process over recent years to diminish the professional teacher training programs is a concern. There are few, if any, examples of other professions having their career entry processes undermined in such a way.

It is difficult to see how the quality of initial teacher education is in itself a driver of career choice. Students leaving school take up a teaching degree because they want to be teachers. Most would have very little knowledge of the course and training requirements. It follows, therefore, that to continue to attract young people to teaching, we need to make the profession attractive.

How do we do that? Try asking teachers. Providing appropriate support and resources for pre-service and not yet Proficient teachers, addressing unsustainable teacher workloads, putting an end to the incessant teacher bashing from self-styled education experts in politics and the media, developing legitimate career pathways for teachers, putting teachers at the centre of educational decision making bodies, and remunerating teachers at a level commensurate with the critical role they play in our community will go a long way towards re-establishing teaching as a highly valued profession by our society.

So where to from here?

The IEU has invited the minister to consult with us in the coming weeks, as the union is a significant stakeholder in this proposed program.

As we look to address the full range of the recruitment and retention issues as identified, the union will advocate for the following:

  • All pre-service teachers and their in-school mentors/supervisors are provided with the support structures currently enjoyed by government-funded programs such as Teach for Australia.
  • All teachers working towards achieving proficient teacher status and their in-school mentors/supervisors, are provided with the support structures, including time release, currently enjoyed by government-funded programs such as Teach for Australia.
  • School staffing structures and allocations are reviewed with a view to addressing the long-term fundamental issues of recruitment and retention.
  • Employers give serious consideration to solutions proposed by the union for addressing unsustainable teacher workloads.
  • The NSW Government abandons its current policy restricting public service wage increases which result in downward pressure on salaries in the non-government early childhood and school sectors.

The union is also meeting with the NSW Council of Education Deans shortly to renegotiate the Practicum Intern Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). The MoU is an agreement between the IEU, the NSW Teachers Federation and the NSW Council of Education Deans that contains rates of pay and responsibilities that apply to teachers who supervise students on practicum.