It’s no exaggeration to say that the worsening shortage of teachers in schools across NSW has created a game-changing situation for the state’s government.
In May, more than 18,000 Catholic school staff in NSW and the ACT walked off the job, marking the first full-day stoppage by the sector in 18 years. A month later, teachers from NSW public and Catholic schools went on strike together for the first time.
While education sectors might have been relatively siloed in their responses in previous times, recent events show that is no longer the case, and that teachers unions, principals and other key organisations in Australian education are literally joining forces to bring about meaningful change.
Recognising the gravity of the crisis, a number of potentially groundbreaking initiatives have been launched to both attract teachers into the role and train them to be classroom-ready.
In February, a partnership between the Australian Catholic University (ACU) and the National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC) was launched with the aim of employing teaching students as paraprofessionals in NSW Catholic schools and providing them with paid, in-the-classroom experience.
More recently, the Association of Independent Schools NSW (AISNSW) launched the ‘Growing and Nurturing Educators’ (GANE) initiative – a three-year strategy to tackle the state’s worsening teacher shortage. The initiative will create innovative, evidence-based approaches to recruit, develop and mentor new teachers to get them classroom ready.
These announcements come as recent data shows Australia’s education sector has faced significant challenges attracting and retaining teaching staff, even prior to COVID-19.
For its part, the NSW Government has initiated major reforms to address the crisis. NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet is overseeing a review into performance pay, extra/co-curricular activities and measures to reduce administrative load on the state’s teachers.
Dr David Roy, a lecturer in education at the University of Newcastle, said that while the profession needs a clear wage increase process that allows the best teachers to stay in the classroom and be financially recognised for their work, performance pay is problematic.
“Research shows us that whilst teachers are the biggest influence in schools for improved student outcomes, over 50% of impact is out of schools’ control,” Dr Roy told The Educator.
“Given the challenges of measuring such ‘performance improvements’, how could individual teachers be recognised, without acknowledging the role that all the staff in a school have on the impact academic and non-academic development?”
Dr Roy said there are ways to do so, but they are complex and longitudinal.
“The current suggested measures, so far, lack depth or understanding and will only create greater division in the profession,” he said.
“A better outcome would be to have an ongoing wage increase scale yearly to allow teacher’s wages to progress with similar, highly trained profession.”
In June, the governments of NSW and Victoria unveiled an historic $14.8bn overhaul Australia’s preschool education sector that will see children commence their free year of schooling one year before Kindy/Prep, attending five days a week free of charge.
Dr Roy said the additional pre and post school hours co-curricular is a good idea to support students developing a width of knowledges and experiences.
“The pilot programs already run in NSW show success with the school and the wider community as it was fully funded. This is a welcome development,” he said.
“Reducing administrative burden and employing administrative staff to support students has been proposed at multiple NSW Education Inquiries and is long overdue and would benefit the staff and students. The key question is whether this is the best use of monies.”
Dr Roy said increasing staff wages, and increasing the number of teaching staff, allowing for smaller classed and better training to support the state’s increasingly diverse students “may be a better focus.”
“The key question to any reform is ‘will this improve the lives of our children into their future?’” he said.
“Some of these reforms may, but they are still lacking any real change. The same basic structures will remain, whilst wages remain stagnant, teacher stress and disillusionment will remain, and academic outcomes will not be impacted.”
Dr Roy says NSW education needs “a systemic change which is not based on standardised test results but returns society to a knowledge rich, and polymath learning experience.”
“We need to value our teachers and students and make teaching an inspirational career. Instead of adopting ‘corporate business practices’, we should look at academic educational research that demonstrates real innovative success for students, and whether the school model we have is suitable for the 21st Century,” he said.
“Let’s find real solutions not quick, ineffectual fixes.”