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Why are less than 1% of Australian teachers accredited at the top levels of the profession?

On Wednesday the federal government released a consultation paper looking at how to make the school system “better and fairer”.

This is part of ongoing consultations over the next National School Reform Agreement between the Commonwealth and states, due to begin in 2025.

One of the questions the consultation paper asks is how to attract and retain teachers, and how to improve and support teachers’ career pathways.

As the paper noted, teachers accredited at the top level of the profession’s standards “make up less than 1% of the teaching workforce”.

Why is this so?


Read more: What is the National School Reform Agreement and what does it have to do with school funding?


Accreditation levels

Australia’s professional standards for teachers are now ten years old.

The standards set out what a teacher must know and be able to do to be registered as a teacher in Australia.

They consist of four levels. The bottom two are mandatory for all teachers in classrooms. But the top two are voluntary.

Despite these being a way to high-performing members of the profession, as of 2023, only 1,211 of the 307,000 full-time-equivalent teachers in Australia, are accredited at these levels. That’s only about 0.4%.

A Commonwealth and state government plan to address the national teacher shortage, released in December 2022, said Australia should aim for 10,000 “highly accomplished” or “lead” teachers by 2025. It also noted the need to “streamline” the process.

This suggests the standards are not working or useful for the vast majority of teachers.

What are the standards?

The standards were developed by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. They include seven separate headings and 37 different focus areas.

The headings include “know students and how they learn”, “know the content and how to teach it”, “create safe and supportive learning environment” and “assess students’ learning”. Teachers must also ensure they keep engaging in professional development.

Each of the focus areas is divided into four stages. Teachers need to pass the first stage to enter a classroom after their education degree (“the graduate stage”) and then pass another stage in the first few years of their career (the “proficient stage”.)

The third and fourth stages of the standards (“highly accomplished” and “lead”) are voluntary.

A teachers reads to young students, who are sitting on the ground.
Teachers needs to show they know how students learn, how to teach content and how to keep classrooms safe. Shutterstock

What’s involved with the higher levels?

To become a “highly accomplished” teacher, there are two stages, no matter what state or territory teachers live in.

Firstly, the teacher needs to submit a complex portfolio with annotated documents, with evidence of their teaching practice. Then they have to pass a site visit where an external assessor examines them in the classroom.

Depending on the jurisdiction, the process takes a year or more. The cost ranges from about A$600 to more than A$1,000.

“Lead teacher” accreditation is another year and the same sort of cost again. On top of this, certification must be renewed every five years. This requires more written statements by the teacher, along with three to five referee reports.

Do they get paid more?

Despite this cost and effort, teachers do not necessarily get paid more if they get accredited at the higher levels.

Teachers in New South Wales do get a pay rise, as “highly accomplished or lead” categories are recognised in enterprise agreements across all school sectors. But this is not the case in Victoria. And in South Australia, if teachers have the accreditation and work in a government school, they are only paid more if they are in a recognised “highly accomplished or lead teacher” position in the school.


Read more: Working with kids, being passionate about a subject, making a difference: what makes people switch careers to teaching?


Is it more prestigious?

The two voluntary stages are supposed to create a pathway for teachers to become specialists in their fields.

It was hoped that the voluntary stages would give teachers recognition for their expertise while remaining in the classroom, rather than building their careers by moving into school leadership roles. It was also seen as a way of raising the status of teaching.

But as my 2021 research showed, there is no compelling evidence the standards raise the status of the profession.

Meanwhile, many teachers don’t stay in the classroom once they are accredited.

A 2018 survey found one in three teachers who had done the higher levels of accreditation had moved into a school leadership role that took them more out of the classroom. Previous Australian research has shown teachers see moving into a school leadership or management role – such as a principal or a subject coordinator – as more prestigious than staying in the classroom.


Read more: We won't solve the teacher shortage until we answer these 4 questions


We don’t have a national approach

The uptake is not helped by different state attitudes. For example, Western Australia has an alternative leadership and pathways for teachers, which do not involve the national standards.

The figures suggest teachers would prefer to get a masters degree or other university qualification anyway. More than 16,000 Australians completed a postgraduate degree in education in 2021 alone. Even accounting for the 4,000 or so of those who were completing initial teacher education at master degree level, this is still a significant figure.

A primary teacher speaks to students, sitting on the floor.
Australian states and territories do not have the same approach to accrediting teachers. Erik Anderson/AAP

What now?

Teaching has long had an emphasis on ongoing professional development. But the low uptake in voluntary accreditation suggests we need to change the way we recognise high-performing teachers.

The two mandatory stages of the standards have had a high impact in part because all initial teacher education courses (and teachers’ ongoing registration) are pegged to them.

One way to give the voluntary stages of the standards some relevance, currency and status in the profession is to hitch “highly accomplished and lead teacher” accreditation to university qualifications as well. We know teachers want to do further study. This could be combined with higher levels of registration.

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