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Issue #1585      March 13, 2013

Editorial

Stop blaming teachers

The huge gap in academic outcomes between students from differing socio-economic backgrounds continues to widen. Clearly there are serious shortcomings with the education system that require urgent attention. But will restricting entry to university education courses to top students solve the problem? Before rushing in to blame poor quality teaching, the government would do better to take a serious look at the evidence. Why is it very few students with outstanding results in year 12 are turning to teaching? Why is it that somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of teachers leave the profession within five years of starting? Where is the evidence that illiterate and innumerate teachers are the problem?

If there are so many teachers lacking basic numeracy and literacy skills, why not point the finger at the universities who pass them as qualified? Some, by no means all, universities are now accepting students with quite low Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) scores (based on year 12 studies). This is a direct result of government policy. Universities have been turned into corporations, competing for students (dollars) and this year the cap on entry numbers has been completely lifted. According to researchers there is little correlation between ATAR scores and university performance. It is well known that a student from a disadvantaged public school will outperform a student with the same ATAR score from an elite private school. The 80 percent mark being set by the NSW Liberal government as a requirement for Maths and English disadvantages poorer working class students.

In fact, teachers in public schools and the most wealthy, “high performing”, private schools were educated in the same universities, met the same entry and graduation requirements and just as many or more top students sought employment in public schools. Close to half of students studying to be teachers are doing a post-graduate qualification or have entered university later in life after workforce experience without brilliant ATAR scores. Mature age students bring a wealth of experience to teaching and make excellent teachers.

If the government is serious about improving the quality of education in the public education system, then it needs to address funding, teaching conditions, salaries, resources, support staff and the status of teaching as a profession as well as university standards. It takes extreme dedication and commitment for a student with a high ATAR score to consider teaching with the prospects of a starting salary after four or more years of university studies of $45,000 (62 percent average ordinary full-time weekly earnings), if they are lucky. The overwhelming majority of education graduates face years of casual or temporary work. In NSW between 300 and 500 graduates can expect a full-time permanent position out of 5,500 new graduates every year. In Queensland, around seven out of eight teaching graduates secure a permanent job.

Teachers require many skills beyond those of teaching – dealing with a multitude of social and behavioural problems, special needs, with parents, endless paperwork, additional individual assistance, and some even providing resources for students out of their own pocket in cash strapped schools. Add to that the marking and lesson preparation that is taken home. It is one of the most highly stressful jobs and made more stressful by poor working conditions and lack of back-up staffing. According to numerous surveys by the education union and education academics, the high level of exodus is because of low pay, excessive workloads, and lack of school support structures in line with increasing demands of the job.

State governments have starved public schools of funds for decades, and the Australian Education Union has a constant battle on its hands to even maintain pay rates and class size. Successive federal governments have steadily increased funding to private schools, denying the starved, run-down public system of much needed funding. How can a public school where $11,500 is spent per student, 80 percent of students come from the lowest quarter of socio-economic disadvantage and 84 percent have non-English speaking background (NESBs) compete with a private school which spends $24,500 per student, 80 percent of its students are from top socio-economic quarter and 14 percent of students from NESBs? (See Guardian, 12-09-2012, “Tale of two schools”). Why does the government continue to give rich private schools millions of dollars every year and blame poor quality teaching for the growing inequalities.

If Australia is to achieve Prime Minister Gillard’s aim of putting Australia in the top five globally, then it must phase out funding to private schools and redirect funds to improving the pay, working conditions, staffing and resourcing of public schools in line with needs.

The best interests of Australia’s children lie in a free, universal, secular public education system.

Next article – Western Australian Labor Party routed in state election

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