Calls for universities to recruit more science and maths students as a way of boosting numbers of specialist school teachers, or risk losing funding, fails to recognise the complexity of the task.
While Education Minister Simon Birmingham’s recent announcement is well-intended, putting the responsibility on universities is unfair.
It fails to consider that the way the teaching profession is portrayed more broadly in society has a significant impact on people’s willingness to enter the profession.
While universities do play a role in boosting specialist teacher numbers, this pressure on universities needs to be part of a suite of measures to deal with the shortage.
In 2017, the Australian Mathematical Science Institute reported around 30% of year 7-10 maths classes did not have a specialist maths teacher.
The Australian Council for Educational Research’s analysis of the Staff in Australia’s Schools Survey showed that 30% of maths teachers did not have tertiary level maths. For the sciences, about 20% of chemistry teachers and 30% of physics teachers did not have tertiary level backgrounds in those disciplines. Most alarming is that 37% of all teachers in their first two years of teaching were teaching out-of-field.
Recruiting more people with science and maths degrees into teaching is an important policy response, given that there are clearly not enough of these teachers in the system, particularly in rural areas.
But a barrier to recruiting teachers, especially from the sciences and maths, is the continued decline in the number of university graduates in those disciplines. For example, the number of maths graduates has fallen 40% since 2003. So attracting more people to study science and maths at university should be a priority.
Another barrier to recruiting teachers is that pay and working conditions in many schools have for some time been less attractive than that offered in industry.
These barriers are beyond the control of the university sector. So, any requirement that universities attract more science and maths graduates should be accompanied by discussions about why it is so difficult to attract people to a profession that appears undervalued, underpaid, and constantly criticised.
Despite this, universities do play a role. Here’s what they can do to recruit more science and maths teachers.
Closer working relationships
Closer working relationships between education and science/maths/IT faculties might encourage more young people to teach. This would be through, for example:
offering education units to science students as tasters. Already in many education degrees, students take discipline-based units offered by other faculties, usually because of accreditation requirements. The same might be promoted through science/maths/IT faculties
students from science/maths/IT faculties can be used as student ambassadors in schools, or through university outreach, to work with school children, assist teacher innovation, and promote their chosen career pathways. These initiatives can both attract young people to science, technology, engineering and maths – especially girls – and give budding young scientists and mathematicians a taste of working with young people.
Scholarships and recruitment
A more costly approach might be to offer scholarships for science and maths graduates entering a graduate education degree. This might be, for example, a scholarship for a global experience program offered as part of an education course, or grants for textbooks.
Universities could work more closely with schools to recruit students into teaching maths and science. This has worked in other countries, especially for recruiting groups within society that might not normally consider teaching as a career.
Take steps now
The push to solve the problem of out-of-field teaching by recruiting more science and maths teachers into the system is only part of the solution. It is a long-term one.
More immediate action should be taken to work with current out-of-field maths and science teachers to raise their expertise in these areas through funded retraining, recognised as additional qualifications and rewarded, for example, with increased pay or bonuses.
Preparing out-of-field maths and science teachers as disciplinary experts in these fields should be a priority. An education system in which it becomes standard to assist (that is, fund) teachers to gain additional qualifications places universities at the forefront of maintaining a highly effective teaching workforce.
Where to now?
While Birmingham’s announcement is well intended, it fails to recognise the complexity of the recruitment pipeline. Attracting people to the teaching profession is the responsibly of universities, governments, schools, parents, and society generally.
Governments play an important role in promoting public confidence in our education system, so that teaching is seen as a rewarding career in which innovation and creativity is encouraged and not thwarted by high workloads and poor support measures.
So, rather than the threat of withholding funding from universities, incentives for universities would provide greater opportunities for thinking differently when considering what they can offer students and new ways of working together.