Can incentives address the teacher shortage in rural and remote schools?

Can incentives address the teacher shortage in rural and remote schools?

In remote areas, teacher shortages have a long history as a hard problem. It has recently been revealed that the NSW Department for Education's Recruit Beyond NSW program, meant to resolve this issue, is struggling to fill positions.

New research based on NSW Department of Education data shows that the most reliable incentives to bring teachers to the bush would also return them to an urban placement after only a few years.

"Staffing rural and regional schools remains an intractable problem in Australia, and there are no one size fits all solutions,” write Professors John Buchanan and Paul Burke of the University of Technology Sydney. They are the authors of a new study in the Australian Journal of Education that evaluates incentives used to attract teachers out of Australia's cities.

“Our research shows that there is no one-size fits all solution. Incentives work differently for different kinds of teachers,” Prof Burke says. “In unearthing some of the knottiest aspects of this problem, we see the need for broader strategies and for exploring different paths to solutions.”

"Poorer education outcomes persist for students in rural and regional areas, representing a distinct disadvantage to those young people. Teacher shortages are a chronic part of this problem,” says Prof Burke.

“The difficulty of staffing rural and remote schools has been an issue for a long time, both here in Australia and in places like New Zealand and Canada,” says Prof Burke. “Incentives are a necessary part of any strategy to attract and retain teachers far from the metropolitan centres.”

Based on survey data from 5911 NSW teachers the researchers found that, out of an offering of 60 different incentives, the most attractive was guaranteed priority transfer to a school of their choice after two years.

Least attractive? A 24/7 phone help line for teachers’ personal use. “That was the same whether we offered 10 or 20 hours of assistance each year,” says Prof Burke.

Looked at overall, the most attractive incentives were, 1. Guaranteed priority transfer after two years’ service; 2. AUD5000 additional salary pa; 3. Provision of a four-wheel drive vehicle; 3. Rental subsidies of 90%; 4. Guaranteed priority transfer after four years’ service.

“On average, only offering a priority transfer after two years provides enough of a pull-factor to reliably bring teachers to the most remote areas,” says Prof Buchanan.  “It is concerning that priority transfer actually occurs twice in the top incentives,” says Prof Buchanan. “Really, this supports teachers leaving rural and remote areas, rather than remaining there.”

“This hard problem is one reason our research does more than just rank incentive packages according to how likely they are to attract teaches to hard-to-staff schools in the regions,” says Prof Buchanan, who is Industry Fellow in the School of International Studies and Education at the University of Technology Sydney.

The study found that experienced urban teachers were the least responsive to incentives to move schools, while teachers already working in regional areas were the most responsive. However, there were important differences in what incentives worked for teachers in different contexts.

“Those teachers who are highly urban and who have the most experience in their professions are the hardest to attract, and they put the most emphasis on guaranteed priority transfers after a period of time. For younger, less experienced teachers, these transfer incentives ranked as second preferences.

“For younger, more recent graduates who have had exposure to rural and remote settings, incentives with a financial basis, especially rental subsides and salary bonuses, proved more attractive,” says Prof Burke. “The value of offering rental subsidies connects to the fact that workers who do not own their own homes tend to be more open to taking up rural and remote positions,” he said.

For experienced urban teachers, offering medical-related travel and accommodation expenses for themselves and their families was the second most powerful kind of incentive. “This is part of a trend where those urban teachers – often those who are older, more senior, and more committed to their professions – are very interested in incentives that also extend to their partners and families,” says Prof Buchanan.

“The preference of experienced, city-based teachers for transfers beyond a temporary rural placement creates a challenge. The same mechanism that attracts teachers to far-flung schools, also serves to propel them back to urban centres,” says Prof Buchanan.

“It means that rural and remote schools are likely to be staffed by the most inexperienced personnel. This exacerbates the chronic problems experienced in these schools and deepens the limitations on their students, who are forced lower their aspirations and expectations. “On the other hand, the fact they place less emphasis on financial rewards may open up opportunities to explore incentives that have a more social or morale-based focus,” proposes Prof Buchanan.

“Many teachers enter the profession for altruistic reasons. Forgive the Sydney analogy, but for most rural teaching still appears a bridge too far. Too far from friends and family, too far from key services. Incentives that tackle the tyranny of distance are key,” says Prof Buchanan. “Being granted a 4WD vehicle during their appointment, was a widely popular offering, along with unlimited travel for medical treatment in city locations.”

At the same time, experienced teachers often have a high level of commitment to their profession. Making ethical appeals, promoting the chance to make a difference in students’ lives, should be part of the strategy,” says Prof Buchanan.

“For an example of different thinking, take the suggestion that teachers who are close to retirement might be enticed to share their work experience by spending a few years in rural and remote regions,” says Prof Buchanan. “A new position of ‘leading teacher (rural)’ could be created to attract those currently in executive roles. This might entail some teaching responsibilities, along with a leadership role in teaching and administration.”

“Marketing strategies highlighting clean air, extra space, accommodation savings, lower stress, shorter commutes time, and greater community connections could challenge negative perceptions that this group may harbour about rural and remote lifestyles,” offers Prof Burke.

“We reject the idea that there is a one-size-fits all solution and identify which kinds of incentives work best for different kinds of teachers, with different backgrounds and at different stages of their careers,” says Prof Buchanan.

“We need a fine-grained approach, because incentives are one of the most accessible ways for policy makers to tackle this problem. The physical distance involved can’t be changed, but there are tractable dimensions to teacher shortages and there is a responsibility to understand them and act on them. The more incentives can be tailored and targeted, the more effective they are likely to be,” says Prof Buchanan.

Tackling the problem early, before teachers begin their careers is another strategic opening the researchers propose. “Teacher education should prepare pre-service teachers for the circumstances they will encounter in rural schools. Core units of study on the dynamics of rural and remote teaching are called for,” says Prof Buchanan.

“Pre-service teachers who gain experiences in a rural school more likely to teach in rural schools. Even field trips to rural locations can develop confidence about rural or remote teaching,” says Prof Burke.

“We must look at diverse ways to make careers in rural areas more attractive. Rural educational disadvantage should be prioritised as a matter of social justice,” says Prof Buchanan.

“There needs to be a multifaceted approach, and incentives should be bundled and flexible to meet the career and personal needs of individuals.”

This article originally appeared as a media release from MCERA.