How teacher shortages are stunting STEM

The proliferation of out-of-field (OOF) teaching has grave ramifications for educators and students, but there are bright ideas about how to fix the problem, Will Brodie writes.

OOF teaching is when teachers take on subjects or stages of schooling they are not qualified to teach.

Staff shortages mean classes in the crucial economy-building fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects are among the worst affected by OOF teaching.

The statistics are stark:

Around 40 per cent of Australia’s Year 7 to 10 mathematics classes are taught without a qualified maths teacher.One in four Australian Year 8 students (23 per cent) is taught by non-specialist maths teachers and one in 10 (9 per cent) by non-specialist science teachers.The number of school students studying STEM in Year 11 and 12 has stalled at 10 per cent.

Professor Mark Hutchinson, President of Science and Technology Australia, says research by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute shows that at current rates of training, “it would take 20 years to ensure every Australian student is taught by a maths teacher with specialist training”.

Hutchinson says when STEM subjects are taught by OOF teachers, “regardless of how hard a teacher works, students’ enthusiasm and desire to continue in maths and science often drops away”.

Lauren McKnight, Vice President of the Science Teachers Association of NSW, says, “we are jeopardising the future of the STEM workforce and it’s a vicious cycle. We can adjust policy to train mid-career professionals, but this is not an immediate solution.

“We are going backwards,” she said, citing a survey of 300 NSW science teachers conducted in June which found eight in 10 science classes were taught by teachers without expertise in that subject.

The survey also found 48 per cent of respondents said there was at least one permanent vacancy for a science teacher in their school, and 84 per cent of respondents reported that science classes had been taught by a non-science teacher in the week they were surveyed.

High attrition rates

“The pipeline of new teachers entering the profession is inadequate, and attrition rates are high,” said the Science Teachers Association’s submission to a NSW parliamentary inquiry committee in June.

In 2020, the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) warned Australia did not have enough high-quality STEM teachers emerging to meet future demand.

At that time, research from Monash University and the University of Sydney revealed Victoria’s rate of out-of-field STEM teaching was 14.9 per cent, and in NSW it was 10.5 per cent.

The report, Teaching ‘out-of-field’ in STEM subjects in Australia found OOF teaching happened less when schools had more autonomy, flexible budgets, and better funding.


Linda Hobbs, Deakin School of Education Associate Professor – and lead author of the report Australian National Summit on Teaching Out-of-field: Synthesis and Recommendations for Policy, Practice and Research – says teaching out-of-field has become “an increasingly critical issue”.

“We believe it is something that needs to be addressed urgently to mitigate any impact on students’ education and teacher wellbeing.”

Associate Professor Hobbs says there are three main causes for the out-of-field teaching crisis.

“The first is a lack of teachers available at the school who are qualified to teach certain subjects. The second is that there is an unequal distribution of teachers in a geographic area, meaning suburbs, towns or cities just don’t have enough teachers to meet demand. The third reason is recruitment practices by the school that preference qualities other than teacher specialisations when making their hiring decisions.”

Paul Weldon, Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), says OOF teaching will never be completely eradicated because there are small schools “that can only employ a certain number of staff but must provide a minimum curriculum”.

However, he suggests incentives should be provided for teachers to upskill in another field. He also says it’s important to ensure even distribution of qualified teachers “so that regional and rural areas aren’t missing out while there is over-supply in metro areas”.

A major recommendation of the report is the development of a national definition of OOF teaching to help measure how bad the problem is in each jurisdiction.

It needs to be addressed urgently to mitigate any impact on students’ education and teachers’ wellbeing.

The report also calls for better data on the long-term impact of OOF teaching on teachers and students, better support systems for OOF teachers, bolstered teacher career pathways, and retraining for professionals wishing to switch to teaching.

Just change minds

Another education expert is less glum – at least about teaching maths – saying helping Australian kids improve their skills may be as simple as “shifting negative attitudes”.

“Many students see maths as a subject only certain types of people are good at”, which can stop them from engaging with it, says Dr Laura Tuohilampi from the University of NSW School of Education.

“In reality, the largest group of people actively using maths are the people who think they’re no good at it,” Dr Tuohilampi told The Australian.

Dr Tuohilampi wants “maths for humans”, and a “rethinking of maths curriculums to appeal more to students’ natural sense of wonder and curiosity”.

“When we solve real-life problems – like, for example, estimating the volume of furniture when booking storage space – ‘maths-aversion’ does not exist.”

Rather than completely overhaul Australia’s curriculum, Dr Tuohilampi says one lesson per month which uses a “richer” approach can change students’ attitudes towards maths for the better.

“Teachers struggle with their students being unmotivated and disengaged. But when you give them these kinds of challenges every once in a while, you allow them permission to start appreciating maths and they appreciate the conventional tasks more,” Dr Tuohilampi said.

No escaping the future

Professor Hutchinson says to solve the OOF/STEM problem, teaching needs to be properly “rewarded, recognised and respected”.

“Higher teacher salaries would telegraph the immense esteem and value society places on teaching and teachers and boost the academic achievement rankings of the candidates applying for teaching courses.”

He says some high academic achievers are put off teaching by fears they “might get bored teaching the same thing year after year”.

To fix this, current specialist STEM teachers could work across multiple schools, which would expose them to different teaching methods across multiple schools and help to accelerate their career paths.

“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.”

He says the drop in students taking on STEM subjects “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.

“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.”