Diversifying Australia’s teaching workforce can help to retain teachers and boost student outcomes across the board, new research shows.
Currently in Australia only 6% of teachers report a disability, only 17% were born overseas, and less than 2% identify as Indigenous.
The new study, by The University of Melbourne, shows Australia’s teaching workforce is predominantly Australian-born, female, and non-Indigenous, not reflecting the diversity of the Australian community – a situation that the study’s authors say has “far-reaching implications” for our education system.
“Current initiatives to attract teachers mostly focus on supply gaps, with only a small number of initiatives focused on increasing diversity,” Lead author Associate Professor Suzanne Rice from the University of Melbourne said.
Associate Professor Rice said that being taught by teachers from minority groups had powerful results for the learning outcomes of students.
“Teachers from minority groups can act as role models for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, encouraging them to aim higher and achieve their potential,” Associate Professor Rice said.
“These teachers often have a better understanding of cultural issues and are more adept at building bridges to minority groups in local communities.”
Associate Professor Rice said schools in rural and disadvantaged areas are often the ones who struggle most to fill teaching positions, and students from these groups tend to have lower levels of attainment.
“This challenge is even worse during a school staffing crisis like the one we currently face,” Associate Professor Rice said.
“However, we found teachers from minority groups are more likely to stay in hard-to-staff schools and build powerful connections with the community – connections which really matter for both teachers and students.”
The report reveals that teachers who grew up in disadvantaged areas are also more likely to teach and stay in disadvantaged schools, and teachers from rural areas are more likely to teach and remain in rural schools.
“Policymakers must recognise that teacher workforce diversity is a key component in improving the quality of schools and is a vital solution to a system in crisis,” Associate Professor Rice said.
To help increase diversity in Australia’s teaching workforce, the study suggests several methods policymakers can consider.
Support would-be teachers within schools to become qualified, promoting retention in local communities.
Teacher residency programs: Bring candidates into schools during training, allowing income and training simultaneously, potentially aiding minority groups.
Targeted scholarships: Assist in covering study costs, already available for Indigenous students and could be extended to other minority groups.
VET to teacher training pathways: Make transitions from Vocational Education and Training (VET) to teacher training smoother, offering a more accessible route to teaching.
Associate Professor Rice said another factor at play is that prospective teachers in Australia face hurdles, including the Literacy and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education (LANTITE), which can disadvantage those from diverse backgrounds.
“We need to consider whether there are alternatives that are equally valid.”
Professor Rice also noted that school context and culture play an important role.
“Encouraging a person from a minority group into teaching won’t help if the structures and cultures in the workplace don’t support them and cater for diversity,” she said.
“School leadership, parents and students need to recognise that staff diversity strengthens the school, and support minority staff appropriately.”
Professor Rice said it is also critical that schools are places where diverse teachers feel valued and can flourish.
“Policymakers and schools must recognise teacher workforce diversity is a key component of school quality.”